Whistle Down the Wind Review 1998
This delightful story concerns three farm children who are being bought up by their recently widowed father. They are very poor like many others in the bible-belt of the American Deep South, but the children are given hope when they discover an injured man hiding in their barn who they believe to be Jesus Christ.
Having seen the film version I was very fascinated to see how it could possibly be turned into a stage musical. I have to say straight away that Andrew Lloyd Webber has succeeded marvellously and has again come up with another winner. However, one must say that it is not another Phantom, or Cats etc. This show is on a much smaller scale and will not attract a wide audience to sustain a run of many years.
Andrew Lloyd Webber has taken a lovely story and created a touching and robust musical. It does not have any great memorable songs that will become famous worldwide, but there are many tunes that are catchy and will have you humming as you leave the auditorium. The music has mixed styles ranging from rock music to gospel that works extremely well and so prevents the music from sounding monotonous.
Marcus Lovett as 'The Man' is phenomenal. He has a powerful voice and a dynamic presence about him that pours out to the audience. Lottie Mayor, as 'Swallow' is also impressive with her fine voice and moving performance. The rest of the company, including the children perform very professionally and solidly. However, the most impressive part of the show is the incredible set design by Peter J Davison. He has created a two-tiered set. The stage floor rises in some scenes and becomes the ceiling and at other times it is risen only half way, and then you have two scenes on the one stage. It works perfectly for the show and is beautifully scenic and impressive. It is one of the best set designs I have ever seen, a very clever idea indeed!
The show has not received favourable reviews from the popular press. NICHOLAS DE JONGH of the EVENING STANDARD was scathing saying that Lloyd Webber's musical is "so ludicrous in outline, so unmemorable in song that his admirers may tune out and turn on to something more contemporary." MICHAEL BILLINGTON of THE GUARDIAN says, "The result, I fear, is so much piffle down the wind." DAVID BENEDICT of THE INDEPENDENT was not impressed either saying, " The major problem is its failure of tone." However, the DAILY MAIL says, "It's very, very good". ROBERT GORE-LANGSTON of THE DAILY EXPRESS says " I found myself both moved and beguiled, damn it. Lloyd Webber has at last come up with a hit for those who don't quite get the point of him." THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says "This revised version is one of the most heartfelt and touching shows Lloyd Webber has written."
'Whistle Down The Wind' is not a great musical, but it is a good one. Don't be put off by the popular press, judge for yourself. It is certainly worth seeing.
Next review by David Heppell July 1998
After a largely unsuccessful run on Broadway, Andrew Lloyd Webber felt the need to rewrite this show and pen more songs in the pursuit of another hit to add to his portfolio. It is doubtful whether this will be the success he was hoping for - especially following the mixed reviews it has received.
It is very loosely based on a novel by Mary Haley Bell (and a 1961 film), but only the bare bones of the story remain. Set in late '50s Louisiana (rather than the North of England of the book and film), the story follows a young girl (Swallow) who mistakes an escaped convict in her father's barn for Jesus Christ (when she asks his name, he happens to cry 'Jesus Christ' in pain from his injuries). Believing they are protecting the messiah, Swallow and the children of the town shield the man from the mob of adults trying to rid their homes of the danger he represents.
For the story to be believable, the misconception by Swallow must also be. The problem here is that in the film, Swallow was only 8 or 9, whereas here, she is well into her teenage years. Even though the setting has been changed to the 'bible belt' of America to make the mistake more understandable, she still seems too old for such a basic error. Presumably, her age was raised to bring in the sub-plot of her 'sexual awakening' (she can't face her feelings for the 'biker' Amos, but does eventually offer herself to The Man), but this arguably damages the main premise of the story.
The main failure of the piece, though, is in its tone and dramatic flow. Religion and race are only sporadically used, and the show seems mysteriously 'out of sync' on several occasions - especially during scenes with the adults. The script is generally messy and the performance feels rather like walking across a rocky beach - jumping from one scene to another in a random fashion with no real or consistent direction (although the second half is marginally better).
Having said this, the cast are impressive; Marcus Lovett (The Man) has a strong, clear and powerful voice, which contrasts nicely with the sweet and delicate voice of Lottie Mayor (Swallow), who is just about believable as the teenager at the heart of the story. Other cast members give good but unexceptional performances - and all (and this is unusual) have excellent diction, you can hear virtually every word, and they and the three sound operators should be congratulated on that.
Also worthy of mention is Peter J. Davidson's ingenious but simple split-set design. Almost eliminating the need for scene changes, a 'second stage' rises and falls with the scenes. This also allows two sets of characters to be on stage simultaneously (through a split-screen effect). Although there have apparently been some teething problems with it, it is very inventive - and is actually quite atmospheric.
With Jim Steinman as lyricist (the man behind Meatloaf) a rock-based score is expected, and provided. Opinion seems to be divided as to whether the score as a whole is memorable - but there are certainly some highlights. "Nature of the Beast", "Tire Tracks and Broken Hearts", and "No Matter What" are all powerful songs, as is "When Children Rule The World" (which is strikingly similar to Gavroche's "Little People" in Les Miserables). Perhaps the most memorable though, is the title track - which, if you're lucky, will only spin around your head for a few days.
From the reviews, it would appear that Whistle Down The Wind is a love-it or loath-it type of show, but I suspect this depends on what you expect of it. It may not be brilliant, but it is still quite good (despite what I've said above), and rather than definitely loving or hating it, you'll probably end up unsure of exactly how to feel about it.
Review by Sven Verlinden Thursday 4th March 1999 eve.
This was my third visit to see Whistle, this time from the Front Row. The opening has been changed now, to have the Gospel flavour Tom Jones puts in on the Songs from Whistle album. I cant say Im really happy about that. Cold has been restaged as well, with a very nice dance number in it now. Actually, most of the show is restaged, with the most obvious changes now in the Nature of the Beast, where Swallow is now almost on the edge of being raped by the Man. Very interesting !
I must stress the fact that Lottie keeps getting better and better as Swallow: really very very moving and incredibly well sung now. Brava ! Marcus was having a bad night, not really going for it, and he was joking with the kids in the Finale to Act 1. The voice was incredible though... Dean was doing Amos a bit differently now, and really giving a very nice performance (Kiss is a terrible thing was wonderful). Veronica Hart was simply amazing again as Candy, and really makes Tire Tracks one of the highlights of the show.
Graeme did Boone in a very sympathetic way, and he makes the confrontation with Swallow near the end a real showstopper...
Walter Reynolds has a voice like a rock and just keeps getting better. Other notable performances by John Turner as the Sheriff, Louise Marshall (now in the kids songs, understudying Vikki Coote) and Carol Duffy.
I cant wait for the cast album to come out, which should be sometime this month.
Next review by Sven Verlinden (On Tuesday eve (15/09/98)
I saw Whistle Down the Wind again. I sat a bit more in the middle of the Stalls, which is better to see the people on top of the platform, but you miss a bit of the detail you get from sitting in the first rows. Anyway, Marcus Lovett and Lottie Mayor were both on that night and I must say, they were in much better voice than last July. I heard the cast album was taped this week, and I’m really looking forward to it. I saw Dean Collinson this time as Amos, who has a nice voice and really looks the part. Candy was played by understudy Louise Marshall, who has a great voice (very deep as well) and it’s a pity she isn’t really a beauty, but she was great.
Jim Graeme was Boone and Walter Reynolds was Edward again. They were both very good, especially Jim was in good voice this time. Unfortunately Rohan Tickell was singing “Vaults of Heaven” this time and it was simply awful. He shouldn’t be singing this great song. Anyway, as far as I can see, there are no new things or changes, so I think Lord Webber thinks the show is as fine as it can get now, but I don’t think it has the best book in the West End (to say the least), and some things are pretty dull, but Marcus really is doing a great job, although he has not the most beautiful voice in the world. It’s still sold out, so I think it may have a bit of a future in London, but is it a Hit ? No !
Next review by Sven Verlinden (Thu. 16/07/98)
Seeing Whistle was an interesting experience. The brilliant opening of the show "The Vaults of Heaven" made the hair in my neck stand up (great singing by Gerard Bentall).
Then it's as if you sit looking at the movie "Independence Day": a magnificent "flying" set by Peter J. Davison marks the difference between the children's playground and the "grown ups".
Swallow, played by Lottie Mayor, sings some great songs in the first act (e.g. Whistle Down the Wind, If Only), with as far as I can judge an authentic slang of Louisiana. James Graeme as her father Boone was a bit disappointing, mainly because his voice showed no strength at all. Walter Reynolds sings a wonderful (sort of Poppa's Blues of Starlight Express) number "Cold".
The Man, played by Marcus Lovett (who looks just like Davis Gaines) has a great number "Nature of the Beast" (which has been moved from the Finale of the 2nd act to his first number). He doesn't deliver it as well as I imagine it can be, but you get the feeling of hearing "Memory" for the first time. It will become a standard song for many singers ! The children are surprisingly good and give the show an unseen freshness and authenticity. "When Children Rule the World" is a tune you'l be whistling days after you've seen the show. I especially liked "Annie Christmas", which is a brilliant mixture of good lyrics, good acting and a great tune.
The finale to act 1 is another showstopper, although I have the feeling it comes a bit too early.
The 2nd act is more consistent and has more coherent numbers, with a trio (Amos, played by understudy Mark Powell, Swallow and The Man), called "A Kiss is a Terrible Thing to Waste" wich will go into musical theatre history !
"Wrestle With the Devil" (with 4 live snakes) failed to hold my attention and the last love duet between Swallow and The Man doesn't feel right at all.
The ending of the show is brilliant in its simplicity (although the "Fire Scene" is quite stunning and spectacular) and the last images are really great.
I still feel the show needs some reworking (maybe the parts of Amos and Candy should be made clearer) and the overall rythme of the show could be more stable.
Anyway, I think you should see this, because you'll be in for a totally different aspect of Lloyd Webber !