You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Whistle Down the Wind

Does "Whistle Down the Wind" mark the end of the British musical boom? While one certainly hopes otherwise, it's difficult not to feel that the levitating freeway of Peter J. Davison's oppressive and rather scary set isn't the only thing headed nowhere.

The Man - Marcus Lovett Swallow - Lottie Mayor Amos - Dean Collinson Candy - Veronica Hart Boone - James Graeme Edward - Walter Herron Reynolds III Sheriff - John Turner

Does “Whistle Down the Wind” mark the end of the British musical boom? While one certainly hopes otherwise, it’s difficult not to feel that the levitating freeway of Peter J. Davison’s oppressive and rather scary set isn’t the only thing headed nowhere. Extensively rethought and revised since its abortive American premiere in Washington two seasons ago, this “Whistle” takes a promising idea and then so systematically botches it that one’s primary emotion is dismay.

For all the changes composer Andrew Lloyd Webber has wrought in the world of the musical, “Whistle” occupies a retrograde niche that is as particular — and peculiar — as the hopeless American accents of the mostly (and ill-advisedly) British cast. Lloyd Webber’s past plays left one cheering a design (“Cats”) or a song (“Oh What a Circus,” the kickoff to what remains Lloyd Webber’s best score, “Evita”) or sometimes both at once: There’s hardly a musical moment more dramatic than Norma Desmond’s return to the studio late in “Sunset Boulevard.”

But as directed by Gale Edwards and choreographed (lamentably) by Anthony van Laast, “Whistle’s” most notable bequest may be the kind of cringe-making kids’ anthem (“When Children Rule the World”) that telethon promoters now and forever will love.

It’s easy to see the appeal of the basic conceit: Bryan Forbes’ Lancashire-set 1961 English film (based on Mary Hayley Bell’s novella) transposed to the God-fearing rural American South of 1959, a land of ready-made revivalism and thwarted sexuality.

Amid such an environment, is it any surprise that three young children — each slowly acclimatizing to the death of their mother — would mistake a convict on the lam for Jesus? This is Bible Belt territory, where impressionable young minds make questionable leaps of faith.

If only Lloyd Webber and co-librettists Edwards and Patricia Knop had written that story, “Whistle” might be whistling a happier tune. Instead, the show is everything Lloyd Webber’s fiercest critics tend always (and not always correctly) to accuse him of: It’s utterly synthetic, with the material folded into a production that on opening night seemed as shaky as the unattractively lit hydraulic set.

And what is one to make of the portrait of the South? With Walter Herron Reynolds III’s imposingly sung Edward, “Whistle” has its own equivalent to “Show Boat’s” Joe, and the musical is so cavalier in its depiction of race relations that its lynch-mob-happy adults seem to have produced a United Colors of Benetton lineup of happily integrated kids.

This show might have benefited from a book by someone like Sam Shepard — if he would ever do it — to honor a valid conception of Nowheresville, USA; but in writing and performance, that concept seems so inauthentic that “Whistle” might as well take place on the moon. And whereas one had every reason to hope that the eagerly awaited Lloyd Webber-Jim Steinman score could paper over the cracks, the music only exacerbates the problem, with its faux-Wagnerian sonorities (reminiscent of Steinman’s recent Vienna venture “Dance of the Vampires”), ersatz anthems and greaser numbers that seem untethered to anything other than the collaborators’ pasts.

“If Only” is mostly a rewrite of “Any Dream Will Do” from “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” while “A Kiss Is a Terrible Thing to Waste” carries echoes of Steinman’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” The charm of Lloyd Webber’s last score, “By Jeeves,” surfaces all too late in the first-act closer “No Matter What,” a gain immediately nullified by a second-act opener, “Try Not to Be Afraid,” so totally generic that it evaporates as you’re listening to it.

In context, there’s little for the cast to do beyond transform themselves into putative rock ‘n’ rollers, even if there was far more charge to star Marcus Lovett’s thrillingly sung “Soliloquy” in the recent Lincoln Center revival of “Carousel” than there is to this show’s portentous and blaringly orchestrated equivalent, “Unsettled Scores,” the escaped con’s totemic paean to his own despair.

Elsewhere, the book is too sketchy and inchoate to make anything of his sexual attraction to the teenage (and none too subtly named) Swallow, whom the sweet-voiced Lottie Mayor presents as a total blank.

Still, as Rodgers & Hammerstein might have asked, what’s the use of grumblin’? At its heart, “Whistle” is “The Phantom of the Opera” continuation that its composer has long been promising, since the two story skeletons — societal outcast redeemed (or not) by a young and pure love — are basically the same. And so are its values (despite all this country’s talk of a new pared-down musical aesthetic): Just as “Phantom” left audiences in thrall to a falling chandelier, the most spontaneous applause in “Whistle” is saved for the briefest glimpse of a speeding train.

Popular on Variety

Whistle Down the Wind

Aldwych Theater, London; 1,176 seats; £32.50 ($54) top

Production: A Really Useful Theater Co. presentation of a musical in two acts with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Jim Steinman, and book by Lloyd Webber, Patricia Knop and Gale Edwards, based on the Mary Hayley Bell novel and the film produced by Richard Attenborough and directed by Bryan Forbes. Directed by Edwards.

Creative: Sets, Peter J. Davison; costumes, Roger Kirk; lighting, Mark McCullough; sound, Martin Levan; musical supervision, Michael Reed; musical direction, Christopher Nightingale; orchestrations, Lloyd Webber, David Cullen; choreography, Anthony Van Laast. Opened, reviewed July 1, 1998. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.

Cast: The Man - Marcus Lovett Swallow - Lottie Mayor Amos - Dean Collinson Candy - Veronica Hart Boone - James Graeme Edward - Walter Herron Reynolds III Sheriff - John TurnerWith: Gerard Bentall, Anthony Cable, Nicholas Colicos, Vikki Coote, Carol Duffy, Reg Eppey, Laurel Ford, Paul Lowe, Jason McCann, Louise Marshall, Jayne Nesbitt, Rosalind James, Christopher Howard, Craig Parkinson, Mark Powell, Jean Reeve, Michael Samuels, Tony Stansfield, Rohan Tickell, Sara West, etc.

More Legit

  • Stephen Sondheim's 'Follies' in the Works

    Stephen Sondheim's 'Follies' in the Works as a Movie From Heyday, BBC Films

    David Heyman’s Heyday Films, whose credits include “Gravity,” “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” “Marriage Story” and the Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts franchises, and BBC Films have secured the film rights to Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s musical “Follies.” “Follies” will be adapted for the screen and directed by Dominic Cooke, a four-time Olivier [...]

  • Tina Turner The Musical

    How 'Tina: The Tina Turner Musical' Tells the Icon's Traumatic Story

    It wasn’t the response Tali Pelman had hoped to receive. The group creative managing director of Stage Entertainment had traveled to Küsnacht, Switzerland, with one goal in mind: Convince Tina Turner that her life could be the stuff of a successful stage musical. “We walked in the door,” Pelman remembers. “Tina was already there, and she greeted [...]

  • Ben McKenzie

    'Gotham' Star Ben McKenzie to Make Broadway Debut in 'Grand Horizons'

    “Gotham” star Ben McKenzie will make his Broadway debut in Bess Wohl’s “Grand Horizons.” He joins a cast that includes Oscar nominees Jane Alexander (“Kramer vs. Kramer,” “The Great White Hope”) and James Cromwell (“Babe,” “L.A. Confidential”). The show has a strictly limited 10-week run and begins previews on Dec. 23, 2019, before officially opening [...]

  • The Great Society review

    Listen: Brian Cox on 'Succession,' Shakespeare, and the Crisis We're In

    Brian Cox is having a pop-culture moment with “Succession,” the buzzy HBO series in which he stars. But he’s also an accomplished theater actor with plenty of experience doing Shakespeare — and it serves him well in both “Succession” and in his current Broadway show, “The Great Society.” Listen to this week’s podcast below: Cox [...]

  • Scooby Doo Ella Louise Allaire Martin

    Scooby-Doo Live Theater Tour Is Goofy Dane's Latest Adventure

    From its 1969 start as a Saturday morning kids mystery cartoon series “Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!” starring its titular, talking Great Dane and his four teenaged friends, has made adventure its staple. Once Hanna-Barbera’s successor, Warner Bros. Animation, took the leash, Scooby and company became a comic book, a board game, a series of video [...]

  • Tootsie Santino Fontana

    'Tootsie' Ending Broadway Run in January

    “Tootsie,” the critically acclaimed musical adaptation of the 1982 classic film comedy, will play its final Broadway performance on Jan. 5, 2020. When it wraps up its run, the show will have logged 293 regular and 25 preview performances at the cavernous Marquis Theatre, where it sometimes labored to draw big crowds. Last week, “Tootsie” [...]

  • Laurel Griggs

    Laurel Griggs, Broadway and 'SNL' Actress, Dies at 13

    Laurel Griggs, who starred in Broadway’s “ONCE the Musical” as Ivanka, has died. She was 13. An obituary posted to Dignity Memorial indicates she died on Nov. 5, and Griggs’ grandfather wrote on Facebook that her death was due to a massive asthma attack. Griggs made her Broadway debut when she was six years old [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content