Whistle Down the Wind
The play's genesis was a 1959 book (by Mary Hayley Bell) which was adapted into a film (by Richard Attenborough) a few years later. Whistle Down the Wind the stage musical features music by Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Jim Steinman and direction from Bill Kenwright. The book for the show was written by Patricia Knop, Gale Edwards and Lloyd Webber.
The initial scene, effectively depicted by designer Paul Farnsworth, is rural, backwoods Louisiana. It's 1959 at Christmas and children mourn the loss of their mother. A convict has escaped and sought refuge in the sprawling family barn. When lovely teenaged Swallow (Andrea Ross) startles him, he says "Jesus Christ." Sure enough, Swallow and her siblings assume that, yes, they have been visited by none other than JC himself. Meanwhile, The Man (Eric Kunze) is hunted by those in the town who know better; they will locate the escapee and bring him to justice. The sheriff (Kurt Zischke) and his posse are, to be kind and understated, narrow-minded individuals. The sweetly virginal and pure Swallow is naïve, loving and incredulously kind.
Whistle Down the Wind is a simplistic yet appealing musical. A few theatergoers walked away before act two began at the Bushnell, but many more rose to their feet at the final curtain. Music and lyrics by Lloyd Webber and Steinman are pleasing but far from memorable. Ross has a beautiful voice, she is always on pitch, and does very well either solo or singing with Kunze on "If Only" during the first act and "Nature of the Beast" toward the end of the play. Kunze plays the handsome lead with requisite force, grit and, eventual, tenderness. He has impressive vocal range and, early on, scores with "Soliloquy." The musical feeling is of the soft rock/pop variety – satisfying.
I must say that the children's choir, comprised of Hartford-based kids who combine, one gathers, with others on tour is exceptional. They have been rigorously rehearsed, perhaps by the stage manager, Allen McMullen. They sing well as a group, and individual lyrics are delivered with clarity and poise. Hence, numbers such as "Long Overdue," "The Tribe," and "No Matter What" are clear winners.
At times, however, Whistle Down the Wind exasperates through its formulaic sequencing. There's even a James Dean-like figure, Amos (Matt Skrincosky), who briefly spirits Swallow away on his motorcycle. See adolescent rebellion?
It is reassuring, though, to experience a large-cast show which functions smoothly. Bill Kenwright directed and produced this show, which was highly successful in London before beginning its American tour in Houston a few weeks ago. Lloyd Webber's music is sometimes vast and sweeping (as it has been in the past) and Steinman (known by some for his writing for the rock singer "Meatloaf") is a suitable and complementary fit.
Whistle Down The Wind continues at the Bushnell Theater in Hartford through September 30th. For ticket and schedule information, visit www.bushnell.org or call (860) 987-5900.
- Fred Sokol