Andrew Lloyd Webber's new musical, Whistle Down the Wind, had its world premiere Dec. 12, at the National Theatre in Washington DC. Directed by Harold Prince, the musical is scheduled to open on Broadway April 17, 1997 at the Martin Beck Theatre.
Here are excerpts from some of the positive reviews of Washington opening:
J. Wynn Rousuck in the Baltimore Sun:
"'Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to,' according to one of the classic Christmas movies (the one set on 34th Street). That philosophy is both the joy and the frustration of the newest musical set during the Christmas season -- Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Whistle Down the Wind"
. . . . . . the 1950s-period show features a host of lovely Lloyd Webber melodies and a more traditional book-musical structure than the composer's usual sung-through fare. It's also brimming with eye-popping scenery (by Andrew Jackness) and lighting (by Howell Binkley) that evoke the rural Louisiana setting. These produce effects ranging from a ramshackle barn that unfolds like a giant folding screen to an overhead trestle with a speeding train. All this is in service of a rather odd plot that is more of a fable than the gritty realism these trappings suggest.
. . . Thematically, the musical deals with nothing less than the nature of true faith, which it contrasts with the traditions of hard-shell Southern Baptists and the extremes of snake-handlers. How much faith you have yourself -- or how much disbelief you are willing to suspend -- will probably determine the degree to which you buy the musical's premise.
. . . Davis Gaines . . . has two of the musical's strongest songs -- "A Kiss is a Terrible Thing to Waste," a Meat Loaf-esque ballad sung with Swallow, her father and one of the show's new characters, a teen-age boy in love with Swallow; and "Nature of the Beast," a rousing solo in which he reflects on his dark psyche. (This character-revealing song, however, has a self-pitying, introspective quality better suited to a quieter singing style than the belted, show-stopping manner in which it is delivered).
Irene Molloy, who plays Swallow, also has doubts, and this splendid 18-year-old newcomer does an inspiring job conveying the inner struggle between those doubts and her strong desire to believe, a desire longingly expressed in her solo, "If Only." Even so, setting up this peculiar story takes most of act one, and the exposition -- combined with the movie's somewhat clunky device of having Swallow and her two siblings rescue a litter of drowning kittens -- makes the first act far less fluid and satisfying than the second.
In addition, though the setting was moved from northern England to 1950s Louisiana, in part to allow a broader range of musical possibilities, Lloyd Webber passes up the chance to try his hand at zydeco, blues or gospel. Granted, Steinman is one of the best lyricists the composer has worked with since Tim Rice, and the instrumentation includes harmonica and banjo, but church hymns and country western are as close as the score comes to Cajun territory. Otherwise, the tuneful score, including the lullaby-like title song, is essentially standard, albeit extremely pleasant, Lloyd Webber of the Puccini/Rodgers and Hammerstein variety.
. . . unlike those brightly hued rock operas, "Whistle Down the Wind" is a musical with dirt under its fingernails, a musical that tries to make a case for faith in a place where it seems least likely -- a poor, backwater community God seems to have forgotten. Faith, the show suggests, is often a matter of opening yourself up to the possibility, an attitude that is probably also the best way to approach this affecting curiosity of a musical."
Benedict Nightingale in The Times of London:
"In Andrew Lloyd Webber's imaginative world wonderfully preposterous things are always apt to happen. Cats ascend to heaven. Trains race each other round the world. An Old Testament patriarch perpetrates marvels in an amazing dreamcoat. And, in the attractive and touching musical Sir Andrew unveiled in America on Wednesday, some 20th-century children manage to convince themselves that, just because he gasps "Jesus Christ!" when they find him hiding in a barn, a double murderer is the Messiah returned to earth.
. . . Prince's production is pacy and, discounting the train that seems likely to leap off a bridge into the dress circle, refreshingly unfussy. . . . But this is not only a world premiere but a Broadway-bound opening, and there are improvements Prince could make.
But Sir Andrew himself need do little more, for his score grabs you, whether it is in lyrical or smokey country-music or fierce, driving mode. The title song is as lovely as anything he has written, but what most struck me were the anthems of babbling confusion, self-disgust and despair he has given Davis Gaines's superb "Jesus". When this ravaged figure sings of failure and of the devils inside him, you do, it's true, wonder again why Swallow remains a disciple. But you also thrill to the sound of true music, authentic drama."
As described by Webber and Prince in various interviews, the show could open a new chapter in their artistic careers. Reflecting the Louisiana locale of the show, the score is influenced by the 1950s musical styles that would come to be known as Cajun and Country-Western. Turning their backs on the big musical extravaganzas like Sunset Boulevard and their last collaboration, The Phantom of the Opera, Webber and Prince say Whistle Down the Wind is more like a traditional musical in scope and structure, not through-written or continuously sung, but with songs punctuated by dialog scenes. Davis Gaines and Irene Molloy lead a cast that includes Lacey Hornkohl, Timothy Nolen, Steve Scott Springer, Candy Buckley, Abbi Hutcherson and Cameron Bowen.
The musical has lyrics by Jim Steinman (Meat Loaf's Bat Out of Hell albums) and a libretto by Webber and Patricia Knop. Joey McKneely (Smokey Joe's Cafe) is choreographing. Andrew Jackness designed the sets, Florence Klotz did costumes, Howell Binkley did lighting, Martin Levan designed the sound. Orchestrations are by Webber and David Cullen.
The National Theatre engagement runs through Feb. 9, 1997.
Whistle Down the Wind, based on the novel by Mary Hayley Bell and the 1961 movie starring Hayley Mills, features music by Webber, lyrics by Jim Steinman (rocker Meat Loaf's Bat Out of Hell), and book by Patricia Knop and Webber. The show concerns a group of children who discover a convict hiding in a barn and mistake him for Jesus. Legendary director Hal Prince will helm the musical, which shifts the novel and movie's Lancashire, England setting to Louisiana at Christmas in 1959.
Tickets for the Washington engagement of Whistle Down the Wind are on sale by phone at 800-447-7400 and at the National Theatre boxoffice. You can also order tickets on Playbill On-Line. For group sales, call 202-628-6166 or 800-432-7780.
Tickets for the Broadway production of Whistle Down the Wind at the Martin Beck Theatre will go on sale in early 1997.
To see production photos of Whistle Down the Wind, see the file "Scenes from Whistle Down the Wind" in Theatre News.
Members of the creative team talk about the show in the story Webber and Prince Prepare for "Whistle" Premiere in Theatre Features.
If you'd like to read the opinions of other Playbill On-Line users, check the file Playbill Critics Circle: Review "Whistle Down the Wind" in Theatre News.
The Martin Beck currently houses David Copperfield's extravaganza Dreams and Nightmares for a limited run through Dec. 29.