STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Whistle & Lady - Two Other Musicals In London

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: Whistle & Lady - Two Other Musicals In London O.K., so Oklahoma! is a critical and popular smash in London. How has the town taken to Whistle down the Wind, the new version of Andrew Lloyd Webber-Jim Steinman-Patricia Knop musical that we last left in Washington in 1997?

O.K., so Oklahoma! is a critical and popular smash in London. How has the town taken to Whistle down the Wind, the new version of Andrew Lloyd Webber-Jim Steinman-Patricia Knop musical that we last left in Washington in 1997?

Before I headed to the Aldwych, I went to a Charing Cross Road bookstore and bought Mary Hayley Bell's work, which had the musical's new logo on its cover. "The novel which inspired the new musical," it says. "Foreword by Andrew Lloyd Webber."

Yes, but he must have written it for a previous edition, for it includes "I am delighted to see ... the show's opening on the Broadway stage" and that "Harold Prince and I have departed from Ms. Bell's novel."

So has new director Gale Edwards, who now gets credit for co-writing the book with Knop.

First, a bit of history on the 1961 film, which starred young Hayley Mills not long after her Pollyanna triumph. She and a girlfriend come across a sleeping stranger in her father's barn. "Who are you?" she asks, and the man, just waking from a sound sleep, can only mutter, "Jesus Christ." And they believe him.

Though that's a fine jumping off point for a story, Bell erred, though, by telling the narrative from the vantage point of a young girl named Brat who hears that her sister Swallow and friends have come across Jesus. The character in whom we'd be most interested is the one who came across him, tells us why, lets us see that she, at first, suspects he is Jesus, then being sure he is, then doubting he is, then sure he isn't. Having a bystander tell the story makes its impact once-removed.

For the American production, the collaborators moved the locale of the show from a small British rural town to a Louisiana one. Though there must have been some discussion on changing it back to England for the London version, it's still in some Louisiana parish. The action has stayed in the late '50s, when Bell wrote the book, when it was told in the present.

As was the case with Sunset Boulevard, we again have a two-level, movable set -- but this one looks quite bus 'n' truck, and takes a painfully long time to rise and fall. The top is a highway, replete with white traffic lines, though it's only used as a place where the adults congregate to talk about the escaped killer. Therefore, it could have been anywhere -- so why did it have to be a highway?

The kids are on the lower level (symbolism?). When the show was heading for Broadway, they had the presumed hit song, "When Children Rule the World." (The management got a group of kids from two British schools to record it, and released it as a single.) The lyric has the kids yearn for a day when they're in charge, before they march in tempo, in choreography that's blatantly like "Do-Re-Mi." It's a peppy, infectious pop song, but I wondered about kids calling themselves "children." They never do, do they?

Children, though, is the word Bell had Swallow use: "Secretly we can spread the word to children all over the country, so that the first people to know Jesus has come back we will be the children." It's Brat's term of choice, too: "If all the grown-ups became like children, it would be a pretty smashing world."

Now the song being plugged is "No Matter What," the first-act closer, which had reached first place on some charts. It's one of many listenable songs, but I did feel Lloyd Webber took some of his favorite tunes, rearranged a note or two, and put them out there as new songs. It's now been a long dozen years since he's given us a great score.

He and his collaborators, though, did make some smart decisions. They begin the show in church with a hymn, establishing the community's strong religious sensibility. They also make things tougher for "Jesus." One kid wants him to cure his sick dog, and our anti-hero has to do some fast talking (and singing) to get out of it.

But the collaborators made many more questionable decisions. They've settled for the hoariest of conventions -- when the plot turns on one character's sneaking in, and hearing and seeing what he's not supposed to. How many times, how many times?

They've also showed Swallow's relationship with her father -- who's portrayed as a sensitive and nice guy, heads-and-shoulders above other 1950's musical-movie-TV fathers. So late in the show, Swallow complains about his insensitivity. It's as if the authors knew that's usually an issue between daughters and dads, and figured they'd use that - even though they hadn't set it up.

There's a scene set in the town's local watering hole, where Edward, a black townie, soulfully sings. Everyone happily enjoys and joins him. Could that have happened in 1959 Louisiana? Would Amos, a James Dean wannabe biker, be dating Candy, a black girl -- and not be the cause of any talk or violence? Or is this multicultural casting?

Edwards atrociously stages a scene where an adult comes into the barn while Swallow is talking to "Jesus." He's not supposed to see him, but the way Edwards has (poorly) positioned the invader, he must have woeful peripheral vision not to see the guy.

Their most crucial mistake, however, was aging Swallow. She is no longer the pre-teen of the novel and film, but is pushing 20 -- making her much too old to believe this is Jesus. The townspeople are constantly talking about the escaped criminal and nothing else, so why doesn't Swallow put two-and-two together? In the book, Bell shrewdly had the parents keep from the kids that a killer is on the loose, lest the little ones be too frightened.

The collaborators would have done better if they'd had "The Man" (as they call him) escape some time ago, from faraway Seattle or Boston. That's he's made it this far would have added poignancy: He's been on the run for months, and had been starting to think he was going to make it. Now he's ill, exhausted, and must stop. Is this the end of the road?

Finally, there are two embarrassingly clumsy anachronisms. To be fair, the first -- in which one kid high-fives another -- could have been something the young actor put in long after Edwards stopped her day-to day work on the show. But what excuse for Amos' saying "A kiss is a terrible thing to waste?" I remember when that line had a mind of its own.

*

Whistle got great applause. Oklahoma! got greater still. But the greatest audience response I heard in London went to Douglas J. Cohen's No Way to Treat a Lady. The type of applause that Cohen's songs received was an ever-increasing thunderclap that said the crowd didn't just love the work, but greatly admired what the composer-lyricist had accomplished.

When Cohen began musicalizing William Goldman's popular novel, he wrote it for a cast of four: Kit Gill, a serial killer who really wanted to be an actor but couldn't measure up to the memory of his legendary mother, Alexandra; Morris Brummell, the detective he constantly phones and challenges to catch him; Flora Brummell, the overbearing mother with whom Morris still lives, even though he's now in his 30s; and Sarah Stone, the next-door neighbor of the first murder victim who gets involved with Morris after he comes to investigate.

There were three other characters, though -- Kit's female murder victims. Ever since the show's 1986 off-Broadway debut, through its revival last year at the York, these three casualties have been played by the same actress who played Flora.

Not in London, and bravo to Ballantra, the producing organization that sprung for the extra salary. While Joan Savage played Flora, no less than Donna McKechnie portrayed the three victims -- as well as Alexandra, whom Kit conjures in his mind. Makes sense -- for Kit is symbolically killing his own mother, not Morris'. Why, in previous productions, have his victims had Flora's face?

At one point, though, when Morris tells Kit he's having mother problems -- partly to keep him on the phone, partly because he needs an outlet -- Kit offers to help by killing her. Morris doesn't speak for a long moment. He doesn't quite consider the offer, but he does consider considering it. That perfectly placed pause (from Paul Brown) received a titanic laugh. But it was just one of many.

No Way to Treat a Lady has now received a number of productions, and a cast album as well. Slowly but certainly surely it has found a place in the musical theatre repertoire. We'll see if Whistle down the Wind does, too.

-- Peter Filichia is the New Jersey drama critic for the Star Ledger.
You can e-mail him at Pfilichia@aol.com