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.