From Here to Eternity*** (Shaftesbury Theatre, 19 October 2013)

Posted: October 20, 2013 in Theatre

photo-95The producers and backers of this show are brave people. Nowadays, new musicals are either manufactured using already familiar hit songs or, if they have an original score, they are usually scaled down for smaller, less expensive venues, as with the recent London premiers of “Titanic” and “The Color Purple”. In a large theatre, with a 30+ little known cast, a full orchestra and an original score by an unknown composer, this show completely bucks the trend in modern musical theatre. The only recognisable name on the posters is that of the lyricist, Tim Rice who, since his hay day 30 years and more ago, has hardly been prolific. “From Here to Eternity” was originally a novel by James Jones, then turned into a 1953 film which, although hugely successful in it’s day, may not mean much to many modern theatregoers. It is set in 1941 amongst US soldiers stationed in Hawaii during the period leading up to the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbour. It tells two parallel love stories: Private Prewitt is a defiant rebel who falls for Lorene, a hooker; Sergeant Warden starts a torrid affair with Karen, the wife of his commanding officer. It matters little that the nature of these relationships now seems dated, but there is an ugly gay sub-plot that clashes more than a little with 2013 sensitivities. Knowing the setting before the curtain rises could lead to expectations for something like “South Pacific”, which had a similar location, similar characters and remarkably similar plot lines. However, it is as if everyone involved realised these similarities at the very beginning and set about avoiding comparisons at all costs. The score includes hardly any Hawaiian influences, which is a pity because there are several sections when an injection of lightness and brightness is much needed. Rodgers and Hammerstein knew what they were doing and the creators of this show could have learned from them without copying them. Worse still are the dreary sets with subdued lighting that makes it seem as if we are viewing through a sepia-tinted lens. It is a mystery why director Tamara Harvey and designer Soutra Gilmour would think that an island paradise looks like the inside of a seedy Soho night club. Lack of spectacle could well lead to the show’s downfall and things are not helped by dance sequences that are, at best, perfunctory. With a company of this size, we are entitled to expect more. From here, the news gets better. Rice has lost none of his skills and his lyrics are first rate even if their integration into Bill Oakes’ book is not as seamless as it could be. Stuart Bravson’s score is full of strong melodies and powerful anthems. It is always a good sign when the audience leaves the theatre humming tunes from the show and appreciation of these songs could well improve with repeated hearings. The leading performances are also excellent. Robert Lonsdale is a stubborn and later pugnacious Prewitt, delivering his big song, “Fight the Fight” with gusto. Darius Campbell (formerly known as Danesh and before that just Darius) has a formidable stage presence and a rich, deep singing voice, so that, even if his acting is sometimes slightly wooden, he is just about perfect as Warden. As Lorene and Karen, Siubhan Harrison and Rebecca Thornhill are both alluring and have beautiful singing voices. Additionally, Ryan Sampson as Angelo, the role famously played by Frank Sinatra in the film, is a bundle of energy, railing against the system until ultimately being defeated by it. The Shaftesbury has, in the past, been the graveyard for many musicals. Although this one is a curate’s egg, it has sufficient quality to merit the hope that those who had the courage to bring it to the stage should be rewarded by not seeing it follow in the path of unfortunate predecessors here. My fear is that it is too old fashioned and does not have enough of the ingredients needed to capture the public’s imagination, but I sincerely hope that I am wrong.

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