Tess of the D’Urbervilles

Tess Durbeyfield Poppy Tierney

Tess Durbeyfield Poppy Tierney

Angel Clare Robert Irons

Alec D’Urberville Alasdair Harvey

Young Tess Maxine Fone

Joan Durbeyfield Sara Weymouth

Dairyman Crick David Oakley

With: Gemma Sandy, Catherine Debenham-Taylor, Dianne Pilkington, Paul Haley, Caroline Hobin, Craig Adams, Susan Anderson, Alison Crowther, Nicola Edwards, Aiobheann Greene, Maria Holley, Simon Joslin, Katie Leeming, Nicholas Maude, Kate Rawson, Matt Smith, Timothy Taylor, Vincent Penfold.

Musical numbers: “Kisses and Wine,” “Who’s Spinning the Wheel?,” “Will I Always Feel Alone?,” “Late Again,” “Do I Love Her?,” “Pleasure and Pain,” “Guide , Philosopher and Friend,” “Share His Whole Life,” “Once Loved Bride,” “Save My Soul,” “Our Dear Mr. Clare,” “Come Home to Me,” “Your Only Friend,” “The Trio,” “I Have Your Love.”

A lot is going to be written in jest about “Tess of the D’Urbervilles,” the latest and least of London’s fall musicals to date, and almost all of it, I’m afraid, is true. All too predictably “Tess” is a risible Cliff’s Notes song-and-dance version of Thomas Hardy’s 1891 novel, boasting arguably the most idiotic rhyming lyrics in London legit history (which is saying a lot). Unfortunately, it isn’t a so-bad-it’s-good howler to rival such classics of an all-too-burgeoning genre as “Bernadette,” “The Fields of Ambrosia,” and the all-time lulu, “Which Witch.” “Tess” arouses not so much indignation as sorrow that this many West End first-timers (the producers included) should look so cruelly exposed, especially as the show’s intentions are far more laudable than those of many of the cynical concoctions around town that continue to run and run.Still, few people pay good money to look at intentions, and it’s doubtful many people will pay to see “Tess,” which is going to need all the undemanding tourist trade it can muster by dint of occupying the Savoy Theater, adjacent to the famed hotel. What primal allure remains a century on from Hardy’s pitiless novel has been notably plumbed on both the large and small screens. Against those versions, director-adapter Karen Louise Hebden’s current go-round doesn’t look reductive as much as merely pointless. Its only achievement is to provide fodder for children who could no doubt repeat the “life/wife,” “past/last” rhymes back to their beaming parents.Indeed, it’s hard to believe that any self-respecting adult could write lyrics that raised audible chuckles midway through the second act when an ever-persistent Alec D’Urberville (Alasdair Harvey) urges the hapless Tess (Poppy Tierney) to “just say yes/make that simple sound.” (And you thought the ethos de nos jours was just say no …) Or maybe it’s just that audience resistance by that point had been broken down in response to a first act whose lusty milkmaids and ever-reclining Angel Clare (Robert Irons, drearily filling in for “indisposed” lead Jonathan Monks) suggested Tess not of the D’Urbervilles but, perhaps, of Sunnybrook Farm.Advance word was that the show’s creators had imposed upon the novel a happy ending, which in fact isn’t quite true even if the prospect did raise thoughts of a contemporary equivalent to some of Nahum Tate’s 17th century “adjustments” to, say, “King Lear.” Like “Lear,” Hardy’s novel takes a fairly merciless view of humankind’s chances confronted with a fatalistic and Godless universe, as here repped by Tess’ rhetorical question: “Who is spinning the wheel?”The composer, Stephen Edwards, has done admirable work over time for (among others) Peter Hall , so it’s hard to know how to sanction a through-sung score that attempts to be alternately anthemic or doomily romantic until it goes into a Penderecki-like frenzy in time for a bleating climax. This comes accompanied, as might be expected, by much full-frontal screaming down the audience in the shrillest Brit-musical tradition, with Harvey’s Alec winning out when it comes to vocal chops, if not intelligence. (He’s the one who informs Tess helpfully that her ancestors are all dead. As opposed, pray tell, to what?)The title role is apparently so demanding that it has been divided between two performers, of whom Poppy Tierney was the brave one to face the critics on opening night. (Her alternate is Philippa Healey.) In a part that more or less reconceives Hardy’s heroine as the Patty Hearst of the Wessex countryside, there’s not much one can say for or against Tierney beyond noting her occasional Patti LuPone-like sneer, though whether that’s meant as an inadvertent reflex or an overt criticism of her surroundings, Tierney alone knows.

Tess of the D'Urbervilles

(MUSICAL; SAVOY THEATER; 1,100 SEATS; $:32.50 ($ 53) TOP)

Production: LONDON A JFK Repertory Co. presentation, in association with Durbeyfield Ltd. and Sheffield Theaters, of a musical in two acts adapted by Karen Louise Hebden from the Thomas Hardy novel, with music by Stephen Edwards, lyrics by Justin Fleming. Directed by Hebden.

Crew: Choreography, Terry John Bates. Sets and costumes, Bruce Athol MacKinnon; lighting, Bruno Poet; musical supervisor, Michael Barrett; sound score, Edwards; sound, Simon Baker and Matt McKenzie; fight director, Malcolm Ranson. Opened, reviewed Nov. 10, 1999. Running time: 2 HOURS, 40 MIN.

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