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Review: 'Whistle Down the Wind' National Tour

Whistle Down the Wind proves - lest their be any doubt - that Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber does not know how to write a musical.

Oh he can write music, all right. His songs are filled with the long melodic lines that build in a classical style. Yet the man has no clue as to how to use music in theatrical terms to build upon the emotions conveyed by the book.

It's all the more puzzling because in interviews, Sir Andrew often cites South Pacific as his idea of a perfect musical. So why doesn't he understand what Rodgers and Hammerstein clearly knew, that the placement of the songs of the choice of the moments to underscore with music are crucial to the success of any show.

In his early pieces, which were essentially pop cantatas, Lloyd Webber simply had everything sung. As the books became more complex it resulted in lines like "Would you like some coffee?" to be set to music for no apparent reason. Music in a musical play is most effective when developing the story or revealing something about the characters.  It's a simple formula but one that has worked very effectively for many of Broadway's leading writers.

There is no shortage of good stories to be told in musicals.  The 1961 film, Whistle Down the Wind is certainly a good source for a musical and in Jim Steinman; Lloyd Webber has finally found a lyricist who is up to the task at hand.  Too often, however, the show bogs down for musical sequences that add nothing to the story. At the same time many story elements are introduced but never fully resolved.  Candy's determination to get out of Louisiana, for example or the sheriff's racist attitudes, or the family's poverty. This show could also be seen as an indictment against organized religion, an exploration of a young girl's coming of age, and an allegory of historic Christian literature. All of these ideas are frittered away like confetti in a breeze.

The score has a few fascinating tunes. "No Matter What" may well be the most moving piece in the show, though the composer obviously favors the title song finding ways to reprise it frequently. It is a nice melody, mainly because it shares the same melodic line as the classic "Moonlight in Vermont."

The touring production, which made a brief stop in Toronto this week, is performed at the level of a good community theatre staging. With a few exceptions, the cast delivers the lines and "act" the piece without ever becoming the characters. The exceptions are Eric Kunze as the stranger the children mistakenly believe to be Jesus, and Justine Magnusson as Swallow, the young girl on the verge of womanhood who cannot understand why her mother was taken from her so suddenly. The rest of the cast seems to be lacking any insight into their character motivations.  It's hard to achieve when the script and score rarely dip beneath the surface but a stronger directorial hand might have at least made for convincing portrayals. Bill Kenwright seems more interested in keeping the scenery moving while the actors stand in static tableaus.

Whistle Down the Wind reminds me of another recent Andrew Lloyd Webber musical adapted from a classic film that also failed miserably in its stage incarnation: Sunset Boulevard In both cases a compelling and fascinating story is trivialized instead of enhanced by the addition of a musical score. Both shows would have benefited by being written by someone with a little more understanding of how to write a piece for the musical stage.

The tour of Whistle Down the Wind plays through Sunday January 6 at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto. For tickets visit www.mirvish.com or call TicketKing at 416-872-1212. The tour will next play Detroit, MI (January 8 to 27), Boston, MA (January 29 to February 3) and Philadelphia, PA (February 5 to 10.) For other stops on the tour visit: http://www.thewhistletour.com



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