Thursday, November 01, 2007

Whistle Down the Wind

Hundreds of people went knocking on the door of the Sacramento Community Center Theater on Halloween evening, asking “trick or treat.” Which they got is up for debate.

The Andrew Lloyd Webber/Jim Steinman musical, “Whistle Down the Wind” can best be described as Elmer Gantry meets The Music Man, with a bit of racism and every western you’ve ever seen thrown in for good measure.

There is only one way to review this show, and that is to divide it up into two parts – the performances themselves, and then the show itself.

A woman I spoke with in the parking lot after the show said that it was “...uh...’thought provoking.’” I think she was being kind. “Mind boggling” is closer to it. It’s Lloyd Webber, so there is the hum-able tune which is reprised countless times throughout the evening until it becomes an ear worm (a song you can’t get out of your head) as you walk back to your car. The tune was pleasant enough, but the rest of the music was essentially forgettable.

The story was just “off.” It was as if this is what someone from England thought that an American classic would look like. (It’s what Woody Allen might have done to “Oliver Twist,” were the tables turned.) There’s the good kid. There’s the bad kid. There’s the black kid who’s OK sometimes, but other times is subject to blatant discrimination for no discernible reason (except that she likes the bad kid). There’s a revival meeting which seems to have little purpose except to do a song about snakes. And there’s the posse which is hunting an escaped convict and is out for blood, as are all southern posses, of course.

What bothered me the most was that the story takes place in a small town in Louisiana in the 1950s. People have lived in this town for generations. Everybody knows everybody else. Yet some of the townsfolk speak with very strong Louisiana accents–some of the time. Other townsfolk never show a sign of an accent–ever. In the principal family, there are three children and a father. The two youngest children have very thick accents; the father and oldest daughter have no accent.

And then there’s the nasty sheriff who snarls “Le’s go git him,” straight out of some stereotypical Western. Stuff like that, along with the perennial problem of sound system distortion making the dialogue of all of the children unintelligible, tend to prevent you from becoming immersed in the story.

That’s the “trick” part. The “treat” part is that there is little to fault with the performances. Andrea Ross is dazzling as “Swallow,” the oldest daughter in a family which has just lost its mother. She radiates goodness, sincerity and gullibility. She has a beautiful voice and she is the girl would be proud to have as your daughter.

Eric Kunze is “The man” Andrea finds sleeping in her barn, the man whose first words, as a bolt of lightning wakes him up are “Jesus Christ!” leading the devoutly religious Andrea to believe that he is the Son of God, the answer to her prayers. Kunze is an intense, angry man who begins to show a more human side as Andrea doggedly believes in his divinity.

Of course he’s not really Jesus. Or is he? A spectacular conflagration at the end raises questions about that point which are left to the audience to answer for themselves.

There are enough holes in this story to make it look like Swiss cheese. There is a great problem with believability and not really enough good music to make it worth the price of admission. So I’m afraid I left the theater with my trick or treat bag empty.


Unknown said...

Unfortunately, I think I'd ascribe the problematic accents, or lack thereof, to the performers rather than the author.

Bev Sykes said...

Not the author, the director. Accents which come and go are inexcusable.

Jan said...

I was there on Hallowe'en. You have said it all.

I looked it up, since I never read the book or saw the movie, and I suspect that Lancashire, the original setting, fits better than Louisiana. It would have been better without the race elements and the preachers.