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San Francisco by Richard Connema

World Premiere of The Night of the Hunter
is a Musical Thriller

Also see Richard's review of The Violet Hour

The Night of the Hunter
Daniel Lachman, Brian Noonan,
and Julia Franks

A film noir atmosphere is present at the Willows Theatre Company in the world premiere of Claibe Richardson and Stephen Cole's musical The Night of the Hunter. This dramatic musical is based on the the novel by Davis Grubb, which was also the basis for the 1955 Charles Laughton-directed film classic starring Robert Mitchum and Shelley Winters. The film has been a classic underground hit since it was first released. Claibe Richardson's powerful score sets the mood of the two act piece. Stephen Cole, who wrote the book and the lyrics, has done a superb job giving the audience a spellbinding presentation.

This musical has already gained national recognition through workshops at New York's Vineyard Theatre where it was named Best Musical of the summer and at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. There is also a concept album on the Varese Sarabande label that came out several years ago. The Willows is presenting the first large scale production of the musical, and it will run through October 24th.

The Night of the Hunter is a prototypical story of evil versus goodness and innocence, love and hate. The action takes place in West Virginia during the 1930s depression, which proves to be just too hard for father Ben (Martin Lewis). Ben goes out and kills a man for $10,000 so his family can eat. He is caught by the police, but before his capture he tells his young children, son John (Daniel Lachman) and daughter Pearl (Julia Franks), to hide the money in the young girl's rag doll. Before he is hanged for the murder, Ben tells his cellmate, called The Preacher, that he has hidden the money with his children. Ben does not realize that this man will do anything to get his hands on that money.

After Ben's death, The Preacher is released from prison and heads toward West Virginia with the intention of marrying Ben's widow and finding the money. This man is evil personified; he has killed several widows in the past for their money. On the knuckles of his hands are the words "Love" and "Hate." He radiates a malevolent charm that permeates the musical whenever he is on stage. While Widow Harper (Lynn Wintersteller) and 6-year-old Pearl are charmed and seduced by the man, John mistrusts his would be stepfather and the boy's fears are horribly justified. The children flee up river in a small boat with the Preacher high tailing after them. John and Pearl end up at the home of the kind widow, Rachel Cooper (Lucinda Hitchcock Cone). The Preacher finds out where the two youngins are, and a confrontation occurs.

Night of the Hunter is part thriller, part religious allegory and two parts heartwarming coming of age story. Andrew Holtz, the Willows' managing director, says it all when he states, "it's a bold approach to a thrilling tale for all ages - part Brimstone, part Jekyll and Hyde and part To Kill a Mockingbird."

Claibe and Cole's score captures the drama, the suspense and the poetry of the piece. It has wonderful hymns that are reminiscent of the Appalachian area of West Virginia, soulful ballads (such as "One More Harvest") and lovely nursery-type songs sung by Daniel Lachman's John ("The King of Darkest Africa" and "Little Sister").

Martin Lewis is a standout with a great voice in the opening song "And a Little Child Shall Lead." It's a shame he has to hang after the number. Daniel Lachman is wonderful as as young John. He is a natural actor with no precocious tendencies whatsoever. He has a beautiful, strong voice and every word is crystal clear; this boy has great stage presence. Julia Franks as Pearl is a little darling with a bell clear voice.

Brian Noonan (Phantom on the Opera, Cats, Jekyll and Hyde, Les Miserables on Broadway) is outstanding as The Preacher. He is charismatic when he is preaching his terrible gospel. The town gets religious fervor as he sings in his powerful voice, "Love and Hate." Noonan is dissonantly virtuous in "Expect a Miracle" when proposing marriage to the widow.

Lynne Wintersteller (Tony nominated for Grand Night for Singing plus NY Drama nomination for her work in Maltby/Shire's Closer Than Ever) is appealing as the widow Willa. She has a lovely, soft, melodic voice that shines through "Wedding Night" and "Salvation is Yours." Lucinda Hitchcock Cone has a rich and radiant voice in her second act appearance, singing "One More Harvest," a highlight of the production. She is towering in the song "The Wind and the Rain."

The production's supporting cast gives rich performances, especially Ron Pickett and Amy Washburn. The large chorus of children and adults is right on the mark, and they project the conditions of the depression era in the '30s. The voices are commanding in their choral work.

John Bowab has done a bang up job in directing this difficult piece. All scenes flow smoothly. Set design by Ray Klausen has that Big River look, with a large blue background representing a lake. There are scrawny trees lining the bank that suggest the poverty of the area. Long piers that move are used for many scenes, along with a revolving stage in the middle. Loran Watkin's costumes look like they came from the depression area. A skilled trio led by musical director-pianist Daniel Fayer is is very good; they are able to project the suspenseful mood of the drama.

The Night of the Hunter plays at the Willows Theatre, 1975 Diamond Blvd, Concord, through October 24. Tickets can be obtained by calling 925-798-1300 or by visiting www.willowstheatre.org

The Willows' next production is the ever-popular Annie, which opens on November 8th.


Photo: Judy Potter


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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