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Chicago by John Olson

Whistle Down the Wind
Jedlicka Performing Arts Center


Michael Vaughn and children
Flop musicals and community theater—these are a few of my favorite things. Favorite guilty pleasures, anyway. Not for what's bad about those things, but what's right about them. Certainly any show that got backing for a Broadway production—especially if there were some big names like Andrew Lloyd Webber and Harold Prince responsible—has to have some merit, right? And is there any argument that community and school theater productions display the sheer joy of performing better than most professional shows, and sometimes feature impressive if rough talent? All of these are present in this production of Lloyd Webber's Whistle Down the Wind. The musical, which aborted its planned 1997 Broadway production after a poorly received tryout in Washington, DC, had a 2-1/2 year run in London but its American tour was cut short. Whistle was named "Biggest Flop of the 1996-97 Season" by Peter Filichia in his book "Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit and The Biggest Flop of the Season 1959 to 2009."

One of the things Filichia's book points out is that all of Broadway's most successful artists, it seems, have had their flops. Stephen Sondheim, Richard Rodgers, Jerry Herman, Kander and Ebb, and on and on. None of these are people without talent. Where did they lose their way, and did they, regardless, create something of value in the process of writing flawed musicals? With Whistle Down the Wind, the answer to the latter question is yes. This musical has a handful of good songs, an assortment of colorful (if thinly drawn) characters and an intriguing setting in rural Louisiana. And, it's actually about something. Like the novel and feature film on which it's based, the story concerns a small, impoverished town where a group of children find a fugitive from a nearby prison hiding in a barn. They've been taught in their churches to expect the second coming of Christ, and they come to believe the fugitive (called simply "The Man") is Jesus Christ. The story goes on to show the importance of faith, particularly in facing hard times, as well as the tendency for humans to harshly judge each other. If the real Christ could be crucified by a mob or corrupt government, is it so hard to believe mortal innocents could be misjudged? The change of locale from the novel and film's Lancashire, in the north of England, to Louisiana makes sense as well. The strength of fundamentalist Christianity in the southern U.S. helps with the credibility of the premise as well as providing the opportunity to use a variety of musical genres, including gospel, country and jazz/blues. The cast includes a mix of whites and African Americans (racism is another theme) and a children's ensemble.

The writers had a rich palette to work with and the result is nearly always watchable, even though the show as a whole doesn't work well enough to earn a successful commercial run or gain a place in the standard repertoire. What went wrong? Let's start with the book by Patricia Knop, Gale Edwards and Lloyd Webber himself. It doesn't do enough to get us to believe the premise that these kids—including the 15-year-old girl named Swallow—would continue to believe The Man is Christ. The plot is frequently hard to follow—motivations are unclear—and we never really know how we're supposed to feel about "The Man." Is he innocent or a victim of circumstance or truly dangerous? And in between the songs by Lloyd Webber and Jim Steinman, there are frequently some god-awfully trite lines of dialogue.

Lloyd Webber starts out promisingly enough with the score. The show opens with a hymn called "Keys to the Vaults of Heaven," sung by the separate congregations of the white and African-American churches. Soon after, there's a bluesy number for the black and white folks in the town bar, the lovely country-influenced title song, and the rocking "Tire Tracks and Broken Hearts," sung by the town's bad boy and the African-American girl with whom he plans to leave town on his motorcycle. The act ends with the children singing the affecting "No Matter What" (a pop hit for the Irish band Boyzone). In the first act, anyway, it's a varied score that evokes its setting, but in the act two we get a heavy dose of reprises, two excruciatingly long duets, and a few numbers that sound like they came from somewhere in the south of Lloyd Webber's trunk rather than the American south.

Back when this project was announced, I was intrigued by the choice of Jim Steinman as Lloyd Webber's lyricist. As composer/lyricist for the singer Meat Loaf, Steinman created some enduring rock classics, like "Bat out of Hell" and "Paradise by the Dashboard Lights" as well as "Total Eclipse of the Heart." He has a way with ironic juxtapositions (think "Paradise"'s "we were barely seventeen and barely dressed") and a very American working-class plain spokenness that's perfect for the locale of the musical's story. We hear some of that in "tire tracks and broken hearts, that's all we're leaving behind"—a Meat Loaf–style song if ever there was one—and another lyric that goes "we'll never be as young as we are right now." He even gets in a little homage to "Paradise" with a reference to young people making love by the dashboard lights. His contributions are a part of what works in the music, but there ought to be more of his unique voice in the show.

The Jedlicka Performing Arts Center, a 346-seat theatre on the campus of Morton College in the southwest Chicago suburb of Cicero, doesn't describe itself as a community theater, but rather as professional non-Equity theater. Looking through the program bios for Whistle, there are indeed many cast members with some significant credits (like Michael Vaughn, who does well by the vocals of The Man) and others with credible vocal training and credits. There are many more with just college or high school performing credits in their bios, so I believe the "community theater" categorization is appropriate for this show and frankly for the level of polish the audience is going to get. Still, that's not to belittle their effort or deny the quality of much of the work here.

The score is uniformly well-sung, throughout all the prinicipals and the ensembles. Besides Vaughn, college student Haley Jane Schafer is a lovely (though by no means 15-year-old) Swallow, and there's powerful work by Edward MacLennan as her father Boone (he gets the title song). Big, beautiful voices are heard from Wayde Matthews, Brennan Roche and Christopher Skyles. Ditto for Andrew Sickel, who has the vocal chops for "Tire Tracks," but as wardrobed and made up for his role, looks like the worst thing this bad boy ever did in his life was to steal an extra cookie or two. Director Dante Orfei does what he can with the material and, with the muddiness of the book, it's hard to judge or fault the acting. Though the cast gives a solid reading of the Lloyd Webber-Steinman score, their movement is quite wooden. Even so, their energy and commitment to the material puts it across.

Orfei's production also boasts some decent visual design. Lindsay Prevost's costumes seem mostly right on (though, as noted, Sickel needs more than a leather jacket to be the wild Amos). Michael Nedza's sets for the barn, Boone and Swallow's trailer home, and the road house are complemented by video and still projections by Michael A. Kott. The latter include some neat effects, like Amos and Swallow riding his motorcycle from behind a scrim on which live action video of a highway is projected. Other effects (the burning of the barn) don't work as well. Orfei's lighting design gives the production the orange glow of the London production's advertising art, though it sometimes fails to light its performers. The uncredited sound design makes the lyrics frequently hard to understand.

Jedlicka, which has been producing shows since 1981, has frequently mounted musicals that might otherwise never have been seen in Chicago. Among these are A Tale of Two Cities, We Will Rock You, and Joe Brooks' In My Life. For musical theater lovers who follow the openings and closings of every musical to open on Broadway or the West End, this is a gift. If such fans are warned not to expect all the precision and polish of an Equity show, Jedlicka offers fans of the art form the chance to fill in some gaps in their musical theater history knowledge. And who else but a company with volunteer or low-salaried talent could afford to put on a show of this scope? With Whistle Down the Wind, it seems they've given Lloyd Webber a fair reading of his musical, and given the love and invention with which it's performed, an entertaining night at the theater to boot.

Whistle Down the Wind will be performed at the Jedlicka Performing Arts Center, 3801 S. Central Ave., Cicero, Illinois, through August 10, 2013. For performance and ticket information, visit www.jpactheatre.com or call 708-656-1800.


Photo: Emily Schwartz

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-- John Olson



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