That any show from an established, Broadway-caliber writer must pass through the New York Musical Theatre Festival to gain a New York mounting is a sad thing about our current musical climate. That the show is more polished and professional than most of its brethren is sadder still; that one of its writers didn't live to see it is nothing short of heartbreaking.
It's a double shame that Claibe Richardson died in 2003, before seeing The Night of the Hunter realized as fully in New York as this NYMF production, which concludes its run today at 37 Arts. Not just because his compositions are deserving of praise, though that's certainly the case. But also because they'll prove daunting to anyone attempting to fix the show, which is an unfortunate necessity for The Night of the Hunter to achieve the success Richardson and his living librettist-lyricist Stephen Cole deserve.
In adapting Davis Grubb's 1954 novel, Richardson and Cole captured the work's edge and suspense, heartily evoking its place (West Virginia) and time (the Great Depression) without descending to the depths of suffocating horror on which Charles Laughton's acclaimed 1955 film adaptation thrives. This story, about two children terrorized by a marauding preacher in search of $10,000 their father stole, is unquestionably dark. But in leavening it with comedy and a rich variety of musical styles, Richardson and Cole ensured that the show would easily chill, thrill, and sing.
An opening sequence, in which John and Pearl Harper (Sy Adamowsky and Carly Rose Sonenclar) watch their father (Tom Gualtieri) hide the money in Pearl's doll before being arrested and hanged, is emotionally vivid. The ramshackle romance John and Pearl's mother Willa (Dee Hoty) has with the scheming preacher (Brian Noonan) is rendered in subtle but surging ways that deliver the deceptively sweet, ironic, and shocking moments with equal force. (The first act finale, in which the Preacher wins Willa's heart during a prayer meeting and a dangerous boat ride, is breathtaking.) And when the Preacher learns the money's location and begins hounding John and Pearl in earnest, the show becomes appropriately harrowing.
Except for Noonan, who sings vibrantly but visibly (and ineffectively) affects every bit of the Preacher's threatening demeanor, the production is wonderfully cast: Adamowsky is an impressively natural and likeable child performer, with an unusually strong singing voice, and Sonenclar brings a charming precociousness to Pearl that never becomes precious. Hoty is just about perfect as Willa, warm but weary and anxious for her life to resume, drenched in simple country charms far removed from the more glamorous roles she often plays.
But while Nona Lloyd's direction is superb, moving between firmly realistic and highly stylistic staging concepts with a flawless fluidity, the flow of the show itself is less steady.
Many comic moments, even those expertly played by Mary Stout and Gerry Vichi as two bickering store owners, slow down the show while lightening the black mood. Worse, the second act stalls altogether when it should be at its most frenetic and frightening: Two misjudged solos for John don't elicit the proper desperation of a boy running for his life; and the characters of makeshift orphanage doyenne Rachel Cooper (the fetchingly maternal Beth Fowler) and Ruby (Allison Fischer), her eldest charge, become less than ideally endearing when they consume more stage time than is necessary to establish their critical roles in John and Pearl's saga.
Such problems are seldom irreparable in tryouts or previews, but due to Richardson's death, this show will probably never get the conservative cuts and moderate rewrites it needs to truly soar. Focusing on the many highlights - including the powerful "The River Jesus" for the prayer meeting; the Preacher and Willa's lovely "Expect a Miracle"; Willa's heartfelt-but-realistic "Make Him Be Good," for her wedding night; even Rachel's overlong but gorgeous "One More Harvest" - only makes you lament all the more that everything in the show doesn't reach their high level.
But that The Night of the Hunter is not all it could be might not matter in the long run. Richardson gained his claim to immortality thanks to the recording of his 1971 seven-performance flop The Grass Harp (written with Kenward Elmslie), now considered by many musical theatre aficionados to possess one of the canon's most captivating and quietly beautiful scores. Bruce Kimmel had the foresight to record The Night of the Hunter in 1998, which might be the most important thing in determining its future prospects.
Kimmel's disc doesn't reflect the final version of the show (and lacks a few of its finest moments), but preserves most of a score too good to be lost. As this is already at least the show's second production - Noonan starred in one in California two years ago - it's possible its final chapter is not yet written. Hopefully Cole will continue to hone and perfect the show, even if that means bringing someone in buff up the music: The Night of the Hunter and Richardson's existing work are good enough to be worth the risk.
The Night of the Hunter