Impressively stylized choreography and punchy lighting cues ignite “G Company Blues,” the opening number of lyricist-producer Tim Rice’s new tuner “From Here To Eternity.” Surprising though its expressive dynamism is, the sad news is that it’s downhill from there. Helmer Tamara Harvey sends in the troops of a notably well-synced creative team, but although their vigorous attacks create impact, they cannot sustain tension when book, music and lyrics are so thin. “Maybe,” announces one of Rice’s lyrics, “we’ve come to the conclusion we’re nothing special.” Indeed.
The show is adapted not from the celebrated movie but James Jones’ original warts-‘n’-all novel about the brutality of military life in the run-up to Pearl Harbor. The latest edition weighs in at 864 pages — that’s a lot of plot, which most tuners tend to do badly.
In his West End debut, bookwriter Bill Oakes never solves the problem of how best to drive the stage story, not to mention: Which story? There’s principled Private Prewitt (Robert Lonsdale) suffering beneath the leadership of corrupt Captain Holmes (Martin Marquez). Then there’s Prewitt’s relationship with love interest Lorene (Siubhan Harrison). And there’s First Sergeant Warden (Darius Campbell) and his love interest Karen (Rebecca Thornhill), who’s married to Holmes. All that, plus the comic ministrations of wise-guy Private Maggio.
With all those lead characters plus their plots to juggle, as well as the creaky reintroduction of a sub-plot about closeted gay sexuality (cut by the publishers from the original novel), the (in)action keeps flitting between stories rather than building a head of steam. Since everyone gets predictable, over-emoted “I feel” songs, there’s perilously little time to create actual drama. In one neatly staged scene, everyone is writing (and singing) their postcards home. Alas, you need little more than a postcard on which to write the dialogue for most scenes.
The result is that characters seem to speak treatments rather than a finished script. Positions are so baldly stated and desires so easily voiced that it’s hard to care. Matters aren’t helped by one-dimensional characters. Ryan Sampson’s Maggio is a tiny dynamo and Thornhill is defiant as embittered Karen, but she has to do twice her work because Campbell’s wooden Warden generates a swaggering, resonant bass-baritone but absolutely no heat. In both the book and the film, Prewitt is affectingly driven to the limits of his sanity. Handsome but underpowered Robert Lonsdale just looks like he’s been shouted at to do a few more push-ups.
Designer Soutra Gilmour works wonders with series of drops — blinds for an office, slash curtains for the prostitutes’ club — swiftly redefining the space framed by vistas of crumbling proscenium arches. Bruno Poet’s lighting creates contrasting atmospheres and continually sets up and punctuates individual moments, while Kate Waters’ highly convincing fight scenes and Harvey’s fully theatrical handling of the Japanese bombing are as effective as they are bold. Yet as the lengthy second half wears on, it’s ever clearer that the team is working overtime to make something theatrical out of writing that is undramatic.
That certainly includes the music, for which David White’s evocative orchestrations and hugely satisfying vocal arrangements, replete with rich harmonic clusters, cover anodyne songwriting. Debuting West End composer Stuart Brayson can knock out generic blues numbers, a swing number, a stentorian march and interchangeable plaintive ballads. Yet even though Prewitt repeatedly sings of the need to find “my own voice,” that’s exactly what Brayson’s music lacks.
Furthermore, you don’t have to be Sondheim to find yourself wishing that, instead of standing still, a number might move either audiences or a character in some direction, to illustrate a change of heart, a developing idea or even simply to raise the temperature. Almost all merely underline the obvious, aided by generalized lyrics, one of which ends (with several reprises) by rhyming knowing “who you are” with the tired “might as well reach for a star.”
Quoting another of the lyrics, a stronger producer might have said “It’s all too easy” and urged the lyricist to try harder, but in this case the producer and lyricist are one and the same. Rice (“The Lion King,” “Evita,” “Jesus Christ Superstar”) has deep enough pockets for this costly show — with a band of 15 and a cast of 29, all of whom would benefit from a crisper sound design. With no star performers and only a 60-year-old title and his name to sell the musical, he’s going to need them. When was the last time anyone booked a ticket on the basis of a lyricist?