Reviewed by Claudia Perry
Blowing into town on quiet little children's feet is Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Whistle Down the Wind". Based on the novel by Mary Hayley Bell which was made into the 1961 British film starring Hayley Mills and Alan Bates, this musical adaptation of this beloved English classic was a hit in London for a variety of reasons. The film upon which it's based is as revered in England as our own "It's a Wonderful Life". Secondly, since British audiences don't know that much about Louisiana in 1959 (where the musical has been reset) and its particular and varied religious practices, they didn't balk at any of its illogical situations and inconsistencies. However, American audiences do.
It is a marvelous idea for a musical as the story is a tender one. Taking place in a remote rural area, a young girl and her two younger siblings have just lost heir mother. They discover an escaped convict hiding in their barn and through a series of misunderstandings (and because the fugitive is wounded and keeps yelling, "Jesus Christ" in his fevered pain) the children think he is the Messiah come back to earth. They bring him bread and wine and tend to his wounds, all the while declaring their unconditional love for him. Though they agree to keep his whereabouts a secret from the authorities, all the children in the neighborhood soon know that "Jesus" is living in their barn. The residents of the small town hell bent on finding the escaped felon are soon on their way to arrest "the Man" as he is known. In a desperate attempt to make his escape, he burns down the barn. The next morning there is no trace of him to be found. We are left to wonder if he escaped into the world or the hereafter.(In the original film, the convict, called Blakey gives himself up to the police and he is taken away. But Kathy [as she is called in the film] assures the other children that they will see him again.)
Resetting the story from Lancashire, England to Louisiana in 1959 brings with it some serious baggage. First off, why isn't anyone speaking with a Cajun accent or Louisiana regionalisms? You could further enquire why there was no hint or even flavor of Zydeco music at all in the score. There was no squeeze box, no banjo, no violin but rather four overpowering synthesizers. And why does some of the music sound like vintage 80's Pop/Rock - albeit - good 80's Pop Rock? And why was a Snake Preacher who was supposed to be wrestling with the devil, acting like a Pentecostal Preacher? But most importantly - why was an African American man dancing with a white woman in public? Most assuredly this would have occurred in private but never in public in Louisiana in 1959 in a bar. There was a horrific thing back then known as Segregation. And the locals might have let African Americans perform in their clubs, but never mix with their customers. Everything was segregated - the courthouses, the bathrooms, yes and most despicably even some of the churches!! These are all perfectly good questions that an audience might ask and I can't answer any of them - only the composer and the director can. But these kinds of completely unauthentic moments keep taking you out of the action of the piece. We have already suspended our belief that three innocent children can mistake a wounded man for the Savior. We have come that far with you - but then you have to keep us in a truthful and consistent world to carry us through the suspension. When you layer these problems with choreography that seems to come from no logical place we are being served up a slice of life that's very hard to swallow.
The score is a melange of styles (Rock n' Roll, Gospel, Theatrical Pop) and notable songs include, "Whistle Down the Wind", "When Children Rule the World" and "A Kiss is a Terrible Thing to Waste". "No Matter What" was released as a single by Boyzone, went platinum and was voted UK's Record of the Year for 1998.
However, there are some truly heavenly things in this show and one of them is Eric Kunze as The Man (the character whom the children think is Jesus). As a man wrongly accused of a crime and on the run, he is earnestly tortured, and confused by the innocent Swallow (as she is called in the musical) who shows him kindness for maybe the first time in his life. We believe every bone in his body and he sings like (forgive me) a young god! Decidedly, Sir Lloyd Webber has given Mr. Kunze a marvelous tour de force song to sing in the aptly named "Soliloquy" where he can showcase his amazing vocal control. Whitney Bashor as Swallow is angelic not only in appearance, but in her demeanor and in her pure, sweet, flawless, soprano voice. You couldn't ask for two more perfect performances given by two young leads. There is also a subplot involving Candy played by Carole Denise Jones who wants to run away with Amos (Matt Skrincosky) a rebel with a motorcycle. Again, these two performers sing terrifically. And their story would be fine if it didn't involve Amos being really in love with Swallow (who's really hung up on The Man). I imagine the authors were trying to contrast carnal love with spiritual love but it only seems to make the waters murky. We really don't need it - because in one of the most beautiful moments in the show - when Swallow is hugging The Man goodbye - though he longs to hug her back, he stretches his arms out to prevent himself from doing so. Thereby at the same time he creates the symbol of the cross and a man who is suffering to do the right thing - to protect the innocent.
There are eight young children who tour with this show and they were wearing body mikes. However, in every city on the tour the show picks up 12 local children who are given no sound magnification. So unfortunately, when the children sing as a group we can't understand much of what they're saying. Couple this with the fact that several times the set pieces would come down right in front of these poor little urchins as they are singing and this only further obscures things.
Though this musical most unabashedly has its heart in the right place, alas, I'm afraid, the devil is in the details.