Modern musical theatre in both the UK and the USA has moved away from sweeping epic stories with quasi-operatic scores since the success of shows such as Les Miserables and Miss Saigon throughout the 1980s and whilst they still prove to be popular amongst fans, imitations of the style have largely fallen by the wayside. Around the world however tastes are perhaps different as Marco Polo - an Untold Love Story arrives in London following a run in the Philippines and Paris. Along the road the production has picked up a truly international cast of performers who bring to life what is clearly a labour of love for composer, lyricist and book writer Rogelio Saldo Chua. Sadly, on the London stage the effort is a grievous misfire and one that isn't easily forgotten.
In musical style it's closest to the work of Frank Wildhorn – slushy ballad after ballad mixed alongside some overly intense recitative that never hits its mark. Whilst Wildhorn may be considered 'schmaltzy', at least he knows how to write a memorable melody, something that's severely lacking in Saldo Chua's score. Overly synthesised it sounds consistently dated and too bound by trying to fit into a mould rather than finding it's own appropriate musical style.
Whilst the music causes fundamental problems with the show, the lyrics and tawdry book leave even more to be desired. Songs don't arrive out of necessity and hold zero narrative or exploratory value, instead the lyrics are a string of worn-out clichés that vamp on well trodden metaphors on love. Often the lyrics don't fit the beat of the music with difficult word settings proving difficult for the cast to find any sense in, let alone truth or genuine emotion.
The book attempts to tell a sweeping romantic saga of Marco Polo's journey from Venice to Central Asia where along the way he falls in love with Kogajin, the daughter of Kublai Khan. Through a clumsy framing narrative, we're never quite sure what, if anything, is real about this 'untold love story', so it's hard to invest or find any real hook into the story. There's often far too much going on, too many changes in focus and not enough development of any of the central characters to really keep all the narrative balls in the air, despite the unnatural dialogue that is forced to over explain each new character, location or plot device to help the audience keep up.
The acting is woefully declamatory and over the top and the dialogue leaves many of the cast treading water. At times the staging feels like a school play – groups of chorus members fuss and mumble 'rhubarb' under their breath to create an atmosphere, that is when they're not adding to the literal smoke and mirrors choreography to numbers that otherwise should be static. An attempt at a pas de deux during a love ballad is one such bizarre take in direction that sadly lacks any sense of innovation and only ever feels amateur.
There are some strong voices within the company, notably Marie Glorieux as Empress Wu who manages to elevate her material to being mildly enjoyable, and Gian Carla Gloria has moments where her voice finds dramatic resonance. It's left to American performer David Bianco however to struggle through the central role, keeping his cool amongst the mayhem and making the most of his material, displaying a fine voice and a calm appeal.
It's a modest production that feels stretched within the space of the Shaw Theatre. Some grainy projections mask as set (complete with clip art camel to symbolise travelling) and a lot of work has clearly gone into the costumes which are consistently bright and constantly changing. Whilst clearly a labour of love I sadly found it overreaching, derivative and incredibly dated. A well-meaning yet misjudged effort.