Playbill Critics Circle: Review Whistle Down the Wind in DC

News   Playbill Critics Circle: Review Whistle Down the Wind in DC
Andrew Lloyd Webber's new musical, Whistle Down the Wind, opened Dec. 12 at the National Theatre in Washington DC and is scheduled to open on Broadway in June 1997. [The Broadway opening has since been postponed indefinitely.] Fans of Webber, of his new lyricist, Jim Steinman, and of the show's director, Hal Prince, are dying to know: How is the show? What's it like?

Andrew Lloyd Webber's new musical, Whistle Down the Wind, opened Dec. 12 at the National Theatre in Washington DC and is scheduled to open on Broadway in June 1997. [The Broadway opening has since been postponed indefinitely.] Fans of Webber, of his new lyricist, Jim Steinman, and of the show's director, Hal Prince, are dying to know: How is the show? What's it like?

What are the songs and how do they sound? Which ones will we be lip-synching to next year at this time? How does the show compare to other Webber works? How does the show look?

Webber and Prince have said Whistle will get back to musical theatre basics after a decade and a half of quasi-opera. Does this show do that?

How are the performers? Are there any stars or divas aborning here?

Please e-mail your reviews to Playbill On-Line managing editor Robert Viagas at Answers will be posted as they come in.Here are the results so far. Playbill On-Line thanks all those who took the time to write.

From marty g:
Made a special trip to Jan.18 mat. Great seat location (orch F-106). The show is clearly interesting and entertaining, but it probably cannot be the huge hit many would hope for because of the book of the show - which strives (and succeeds in some measure) to deliver a strong and touching message with characters who simply may not be very appealing to many people. And these characters are set within many scenes which remind us-for better or worse-of so many other shows. For the church scene think Purlie; for the homestead, think 100 in the Shade or State Fair. Frankly - given that it is Andrew Lloyd Webber - it did not surprise me that cats figured prominently in the story, and that the basic theme is derived from a quasi-jesus christ (superstar!) figure. And who could not be reminded by the ride of the motorcycle of the Sunset Blvd. car chase?
But all this quibbling aside, I was touched and "goose-bumped" largely because of the outstanding score. At least 4 tunes are instantly memorable - title number, "kiss," "if only," and the "vaults of heaven." Score is beautifully orchestrated, and every word is intelligible - a particular surprise given the number of chorus numbers and the many children singing (but remember, I was in F center!) The only cast member whose delivery was either annoying or frequently hard to decipher was the little brother (who wore the silly hat - and fittingly recognized his scruffy cat as the "runt" of the litter!).
I loved the novelty of the initial scene which was set in the middle of the overture - though on reflection I was puzzled that Aunt Dot made the kids put on sweaters and coats after they had been playing outdoors (In fact, that the show was taking place around Christmas never seemed too apparent). The scenery seemed to be of a consistent and appropriate style - only drawing attention to itself in the Anna Karenina train scene (think On the 20th Century or Wild Honey - does anybody remember Wild Honey at the Anta/Virginia?) Some interesting lighting effects, simple costumes - overall an understated but appropriate quality to the production which neither overwhelmed nor disappointed the viewer. It should not win Tonys for the tech aspects.
There have been musicals with scenes during the overture (the recent Carousel). But WDTW's overture scene started and clearly ended before the overture was two-thirds over - and drew enormous attention to itself. To the extent the scene is intended to shape our initial impressions of the children and the relationship of Swallow and Aunt Dot - the scene is adequate. But, in terms of stagecraft and character development, Prince should be able to do a lot more with it.
The several scenes which followed were somewhat jarring - most particularly numbers with the Elvis Dude and his girlfriend (Amos and Candy) who seemed to have wandered in from a "Grease" touring company. They gyrated smoothly (on a bench at a bus/filling station), and Candy, I think, led the country line dance in the bar (a dance number which built nicely, but not originally). Her role seems excisable, and his must be toned down a bit unless the authors really want us to fear him as a potential rapist in his barn scene with Swallow.
The scene introducing The Man, is not befitting a show of this calibre - Swallow pretends to fly through the air from one haystack to another only to alight on a David Gaines (buried in the hay like one of the 101 Dalmatians). Couldn't he sneak into the barn while she is feeding her cats - allowing him an entrance as well as a little suspense until Swallow actually sees him? Gaines (looking like Kris Kristofferson in scruffy/dirty preppy clothes) needs to sing more in Act 1 - and his Annie Christmas number - lamentably reprised in Act 2 - should be replaced by a number, maybe a dream-flashback kind of thing - which helps us better know him and develop some emotional response to him. As now written, he is unconvincingly inscrutable and unmenacing - and flat out boring -until he sings about the nature of the beast - much too late in Act 2.
I am of two minds as to Miss Molloy. While her singing is lovely and her acting is natural, she did not convey, at least to me, a convincing measure of either innocence or vulnerability. I wanted to be moved by her, but I did not find her to be sufficiently affecting.
While many audience members seemed to be sniffling and teary towards the end, this observer feels that the Gaines and Molloy relationship can and should produce a more powerful reaction in the audience. However, the weirdness of their relationship (of a monster and an innocent - like the relationship between Phantom and Christine, Norma Desmond and Joe Gillis) may undermine the audience's empathy.
Through much of the show, the father and Aunt Dot were needlessly one dimensional. Aunt Dot's role could carry a bit more of the show's emotional weight, and she should be developed - I believe the actress playing this role has reservoirs of ability only awaiting Prince's direction. Her collapse during the snake scene is upstaged by the snakes themselves - as we wonder what is making them slither so convincingly?
The scene during which the barn burns is well enough done, but they should drop the smoldering ruins of the barn which seem to be closer in proximity to the house than the standing barn was. (By the way - for smoldering ruins think Rise and Fall of Little Voice - anyone remember??). Audience focus on the radio announcer near the show's end (which adds to the emotional pull) is too easily missed by other simultaneous scenery and lighting changes. This is must-fix for director Prince.
Notwithstanding the above, I enjoyed and will remember the show. Even though I found the basic premise unconvincing, I found the message to be meaningful and the time and money spent worthwhile. Finally, there is the lovely score - which will be a source of pleasure forever. (2/1/97)

From: Joel R. Ferris:
Andrew Lloyd Webber's new musical, "Whistle Down the Wind", opened to a less than stellar review in December from the critic of the Washington Post. As I exited the National Theatre last night, I remembered that a few years ago the Post's critic trashed the pre-Broadway "M. Butterfly" and that exquisite show went on to win raves in New York and multiple Tony Awards. Would history repeat itself? Very likely, my companions and I decided.
"Whistle Down the Wind" does what good theatre ought to do - it makes the audience feel as though they are experiencing something special. The music is memorable, the story is interesting, the scenery is meticulous, the lighting is magnificent, the acting is perfect. But, beyond that, never before has a cast with such beautiful, strong, moving voices been assembled on one stage - they are truly extraordinary. Every adult and every child in the large cast possesses a voice that does justice to Lloyd Webber's beautiful new music. One can only hope that the fine-tuning about to take place between D.C. and New York will not do anything to diminish the impact of this fine group of performers. (1/26/97)

From Bill Wills:
First let me say I am a big Andrew Lloyd Webber fan. Ever since the day in 1969, I guess, when I heard the song "Jesus Christ, Superstar" played by some daring radio station in Baltimore.; I drove 400 miles six times in one year to see "Phantom" and adored "Aspects of Love". I also am a great sentimentalist and a religious person so a sentimental Webber musical with religious undertones had my expectations high.
It was one of the most disappointing musicals I have seen. You know how when you see a musical for the very first time, especially one for which you have not heard the music or the plot in detail, there are chills of excitement that run through you when those "special songs" are song or those special moments occur. There is a tingle that happens. For me "Whistle Down the Wind" had no tingle--maybe a little on the opening number--but from there on it left me cold. There were very few times when my hands wanted to respond on their own in a clapping motion. Most the time it was out of respect for the performer¼s effort. The story could have merit, but it just didn't develop in any way that I felt sympathy or cared about what was going to happen to anyone .
Although there are several lovely melodies, for the most part in this score loud seems to be the synonym for exciting. There is more to excitement than loud. We have again a show based on movie cinema techniques--many of the scenes are short snippets--my god, where have the days gone of scenes where you can listen to two people talk and to develop a relationship. The scenery changes come so fast upon themselves in Act One at one point I whispered to my wife"if they change the scenery again, I'll scream". The two big ensemble numbers seemed included for just that-a number to show off a country-western line dance and the revival meeting. And, I am sorry Mr. Prince( I can¼t believe I am going to say this), but to me the revival meeting scene was one of the poorest things I have ever seen. To me it was laughable-reminiscent to when in the movie "The Tall Guy" they do a musical version of "The Elephant Man". And finally, The Man¼s soliloquy was a wonderful vocal exercise for Mr. Gaines, but Mr. Webber should listen again to Mr. Rodgers¼ soliloquy in "Carousel" to see how a musical number can have several different themes without trying to "show off" one¼s own musicology. And the climatic ending had about as much climax as a plateau. If I had to come up with one word to describe the show, I would say "contrived" the scenes, the musical numbers.....contrived. The cast has fabulous voices (although does every little child in Louisiana have to sound like they spent time at Miss Hannigan's orphanage and took vocal lessons ? oh for a voice that sounds like a CHILD). But do you know when I felt the most energy from the cast ? the curtain call!!! I must admit that the audience certainly gave them a long appreciative applause, but, however, not one filled with electricity. And speaking of filled, the theatre was not filled to capacity on the night we attended.
My suggestions before June--forget making a movie, give us more scenes, and if you insist on not using dialogue to develop character, but want us only to learn about character through songs then you had better make sure the balance between music and voice is correct so that we can understand the words. Right now it seems as if what happened was "turn up the voices so they can sing over the turn up the music to reach the voices..turn up the voices to sing over the music...etc. etc." Have those lovable children sing in lovable voices-it would be much more touching when they are giving gifts if they sounded like kids not Broadway stars--drop the revival meeting--and work on the ending, and let this extremely talented cast shine even more. (1/25/97)

From whistle26:
I just recently saw Whistle twice on Jan 17 and 18. I am going back on Feb 1. I really enjoyed the show. I felt caught up in the lives of the characters. But my main reason to see this new show was because Davis Gaines is starring in it. I was disappointed that he had very few musical numbers. When he is on stage he steals the show. No one in the play can compete with this talented performer. Hopefully he will be getting more songs to sing, and not just duets with other cast members. Irene Molloy was very good as Swallow. But it was hard to believe that she still believed that The Man was Jesus, when her brother Poor Brat realized it sooner than she did.
The children's cast was excellent. I found myself humming their songs. I love the emotion Davis puts into his song Annie Christmas, which he sings to the children. His rapport with them is wonderful. I liked the special effect train and the burning of the barn. My least favorite scene was Wrestle with the Devil. That must be removed, it spoils the whole play. The roles of Candy and Amos need to be further developed. Either that or get rid of them.I enjoyed the play a great deal and I look forward to seeing it on Feb 1 again, as well as its B'dway debut. (1/22/97)

From Joe:
I saw the show on January 18th and would like to add my opinion.
I think the story line needs some work. The first act was a little slow developing in my opinion and the relationship between Candy and Amos, two young adults ready to leave the small southern town, added little to the rest of the story. In fact, if the character of Candy was eliminated, nothing would be lost. No offense to the actress who played her, she was beautiful, and could sing and dance as well as anyone I've seen. It's just that her character seems to have been created just to add a pretty face.
The acting and the music was wonderful. I am eagerly waiting the release of the cast CD, a must have. The set was simple (compared to the last Lloyd Webber show I saw, Sunset Boulevard) and reflected a small southern town in the 1950 quite well. I'm not from Louisiana, but this show is supposed to take place at Christmas time and a lot of scene changes had crickets chirping in the background. Made me think it was June or July, not the end of December.
My major complaint with the show was the use of Davis Gaines. I have been a big fan of his since I first saw him as the Phantom in 1994. He has such a powerful and commanding voice, yet i think he only sang twice in the first act. His character needs to be introduced earlier in the show so he can use his talents to the fullest.
My overall grade for the show - B. It has the potential for becoming another blockbuster for Sir Andrew, it just needs some fine tuning. (1/21/97)

From Debbie C. in western PA:
A group of 46 Webber devotees took a bus trip to D.C. on Sunday to see "Whistle Down the Wind." We loved the show, but all agreed that it needed some refinements before moving to Broadway. As others have said, Davis Gaines was unbelievably great! However, we wished he had sung more in Act 1. Also, several of our people misunderstood the snake handling scene in Act 2. Along those lines, the character of Aunt Dot needed more development.
Tech was amazing--a show in itself.
Two other things some people missed: when Amos discovers the Man, and the line on the radio about the suspect being sighted (at the end of the show).We all loved "A Kiss Is A Terrible Thing to Waste," but thought that "Soliloquy" was a bit too long. We also would have liked to see Candy's character more developed. She's a fabulous dancer! Irene Molloy (Swallow) was superb; what presence!
If Bill and Hilary haven't yet seen this show, they need to walk a few blocks down the street and treat themselves! (1/20/97)

From DSSullivan:
I recently had the opportunity to see Whistle while I was in DC. What a great show!! The interesting part was all the new faces and talent that Webber has put together. I really enjoyed the incredible voice of Steve Scott Springer. No doubt we will be hearing more from him in the years to come. Too bad they can't have more of a showcase for his talent than one big song that ends with the motorcycle ride. It seemed awkward and difficult to clap and give our true appreciation at the moment the song ended. I don't know where Springer came from, but we sure look forward to seeing him again on Broadway or wherever he performs next. Thanks for the opportunity to show my appreciation for the entire cast and production. (1/17/97)

From munozr:
I've now seen the show twice, and thought it was outstanding - in fact, I have tickets to see it once more before it closes in February. I'm in love with Whistle Down the Wind.
And it's an easy show to love. Irene Molloy is Swallow, a teenager in Thibodeax, Louisiana, in the 1950s. Swallow and her younger sister and brother liver with her father and Aunt Dot, Swallow's mother having passed away. With Christmas coming close, the children find a wounded man in their barn that, because of their earlier prayers and some appropriately-placed hand and foot wounds, they believe to be Jesus Christ.
There's a strong theme of redemption here; the wounded man is actually an escaped murderer, and we are shown how the simple faith of children can transform even the most unrepentant of men.
Ms. Molloy is simply superb - her voice is clear, pure, and sweet, and she leaves us thrilled each time she sings. Boone, her father, is played by Timothy Nolan, and he, too, is superb vocally. I know some critics have taken potshots at the title song, but when Nolan sings "Whistle Down The Wind" it's both stirring and sad, an anthem to his lost wife and an appreciation of his children.
Davis Gaines is The Man, the convict who turns Swallow's life upside down. He's well known to Broadway audiences, having portrayed both Raoul and The Phantom at the Majestic. His vocal abilities are legendary, and although this show doesn't always give him the chance to really soar, several pieces - "Nature of The Beast" and "A Kiss Is A Terrible Thing To Waste" do let him shine.
Steve Scott Springer and Lacey Hornkohl are Amos and Candy - I can't believe the pun was unintentional on Webber's part... but I don't get the relevance, either. They're a pair of rebellious teens that evidently like to jitterbug and want to get the hell out of Thibodeaux... although that subplot doesn't end up going much of anywhere. Amos also has an inappropriate glint in his eye for Swallow, and it's he that starts the "kiss is a terrible thing to waste" mantra.
Critics have given the show mixed reviews, and I agree that it's not unreservedly perfect - in addition to the stalled Amos and Candy subplot, the story doesn't seem to do much with the travelling evangelistic snake-handlers who exhort us about the need to "Wrestle With The Devil". But the basic message is strong and heart-pulling... and the music is superb. Not since the late 1970s ("Annie") has DC been the preview site for a major Broadway production. I count myself among the very fortunate to have been here for Whistle Down The Wind. (1/13/97)

From Bootsie5:
On a recent trip to D.C. we were privileged to see WDTW and there was something for everyone. We especially enjoyed the performance of Steve Scott Springer who portrayed Amos. He researched his character very well and certainly will be instrumental in taking the song "A Kiss Is A Terrible Thing To Waste" to Broadway to stand along with the theme song of "Whistle Down The Wind". His acting is refreshing. (1/10/97)

I was in Washington, DC and caught the opening of Andrew's new musical and just wanted to say my two cents worth about it. I am originally from Louisiana and now live in Los Angeles. I thought the music was wonderful but the book needs work.
I thought the performers were wonderful, especially Steve Scott Springer. Who is he and where did he come from? His voice was amazing and I thought his energy was electrifying. I wish he appeared and sang more in the show. I thought that he stole the show from Davis in the second act. I saw the show three times while in DC and it only got better each time and again, especially Steve Scott Springer. Several audience members who sat around thought he was wonderful as well and were wondering where he came from. All of us are looking forward to seeing him at the New York opening and can't wait to see how much New Yorkers will love him and the music in the show. I assume changes will made to the book before New York and I look forward to those changes and to seeing more of Steve Scott Springer.
I appreciate you listening to my two cents. Well, maybe I went up to five cents. (1/4/97)

From Nannerloo1:
I recently had the chance to see Whistle in D.C. I have to say that I was incredibly impressed with the cast. They seemed to Light Up the sketchy story. I was most impressed with a newcomer, Steve Scott Springer. He did an incredible job portraying "Amos". I especially liked the song "A Kiss is a Terrible Thing to Waste."
The song was very powerful and Springer sang with a passion that truly enthralled the audience. I can't wait to see what he does in the future.

From CATerriD:
I saw Whistle Down the Wind on December 19. I loved it. The acting was phenomenal!
If you are expecting an Andrew Lloyd Webber extravaganza, you'll be disappointed. But if you are looking forward to an exceptional musical, you won't be disappointed. As everyone has said so far, Davis Gaines was underused -- what a range his voice has! And Irene Molloy is as talented as she is fresh. A star is born. The other children showed as much talent in their performances. I can't wait for the CD to come out! (12/23/96)

From Brad Hathaway:
Previews of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Whistle Down The Wind showed a weightier, more integrated work than early publicity indicated. Forget any use of the term "minimalism" - this show has sweep and scope.
Lloyd Webber's switch in the tale's setting to rural Louisiana in the late 1950's lets him use local and topical influences to build a musical tapestry that hangs heavy on the wall. It is a serious piece with serious themes and Harold Prince has staged it with admirable consistency of style. Sets, costumes, lighting all blend to the same hue, the same feel, the same tone. It is an openly theatrical piece using a lot of scrims to project onto and be seen through as well as set pieces that slide, glide and reassemble in view of the audience.
As a piece it hangs together --- even when pushing the edges of the tapestry as with the teen-agers rock dance "Tire Tracks and Broken Hearts." Only twice does it seem to violate the unanimity of the piece: "Annie Christmas" doesn't "sound" like it goes with the rest of the show. And there is one of Harold Prince's wonderful scenes that linger in the mind well beyond the evening but which don't seem to have a lot to do with the rest of the show. "Wrestle With the Devil" is a treat but the show stops for a few minutes while we enjoy this treat ... it's fun, it's dazzle, it's Prince. He relies on special effects only briefly and, then, to good effect. The show in no way rides on such effects. It rides on its music, its director's exquisite sense of presentation and its performers.
Irene Molloy makes an astonishing professional debut in the female lead. Her voice is strong, pure and expressive, her enunciation clean and without pretension. Her acting is smooth, unobtrusive and supportive.
Davis Gaines gets a chance to originate a Lloyd Webber role but it is not as big a role as he deserves. He brings that wonderful voice and intensity which, at its peak, grabs every eye, ear and mind in the auditorium. But the role does not demand that intensity throughout the evening.
Then there are the kids - a dozen of them. They provide charm, energy, enthusiasm and a generous portion of cute. One standout among the rest of the cast was Timothy Nolan who was a real strength of the evening.
While not exactly "sung through" this piece woven together with as much unanimity as Lloyd Webber's recent works. The congregation sings hymns, the teen-agers rock, the family prays, the kids dream and scheme --- all to numbers that share setting and tone. There are numbers to hum and rhythms to tap your feet to. A 22-piece pit orchestra give polish and drive to orchestrations by David Cullen and ALW.

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