After one of the most inscrutable marketing campaigns in recent memory, the veil is finally lifted on brand new musical Moonshadow.
Yusuf, the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens, has co-written the book, which weaves his mighty catalogue of hits into an original piece of fantastical mythology. Closest in style, amongst the many jukebox musicals, to Queen’s We Will Rock You, the show certainly benefits from the quality of these classic songs.
Under the supervision of music director and orchestrator Stephen Amos the music sounds superb and is a definite highlight of the production. Vocals are rich, strong and pumped out at high volume. Fans of Cats Stevens will appreciate the terrific treatment his work receives here and even casual radio listeners will recognise a significant proportion of the score.
This is, however, a musical, not a concert and unfortunately the storyline and script are not on par with the quality of the music. The premise of the plot borrows from established stories and characters but then does not know what to do with them. Our hero, ostensibly, is Stormy, a white haired youth who is locked in a Romeo and Juliet style relationship, balconies and all, with Lisa. The source of the feud between the families is so unclear that even when the issue is raised in act two the characters do not know why they are feuding.
Stormy finds himself being followed by a Moonshadow (wink wink) as he sets off on a Pippin-like quest to restore light to his planet, Alaylia. Lisa is left behind fending off the advances of the Gaston-like Pat Matthew. Stormy encounters the gleefully malicious Princess Zeena (think of the Wicked Witch of the West crossed with Katisha) who seduces Stormy with possessions in a Pleasure Island-like bid to claim his precious pendant and, somehow, claim all the light and hence claim power over the planet.
Stormy’s journey tends to drag in act one in a series of incidents, such as a Big Daddy “Rhythm of Life” type of scene, which slow the action. Then when the quest is apparently achieved quite suddenly at the end, there is no significant payoff to the long process in terms of the new light available. The cast take off their outer rags to reveal coloured tops but the salvaged painting that shows a world with sunlight remains the brightest thing on stage. And if there is an environmental allegory to the story, which is set in locations such as Blacksmog Mountain, it did not come across at all.
Princess Zeena suffers the lamest sendoff in memory for a villain when, in the midst of other various action, she is stuffed in a box. Most curious of all, when Stormy finally sings “Moonshadow” he is actually no longer being followed by a Moonshadow. And the company all join in even though they were never being followed by Moonshadow.
The magical world of Alaylia is created quite effectively in a seamless blend of constructed sets and projections. Doğan Ür’s illustrations have been incorporated into Adam Gardnir’s set designs and Nimrod Weiss’ projections. Panels above and on each side of the stage create a large canvas for the projections, which, along with Trudy Dalgleish’s fabulous lighting design, serve to create quite an immersive experience for the audience.
Director Albers Albien keeps energy high, although as a co-writer of the book he should have taken more opportunity to enhance the clarity of the story and the motivation of the characters. Yvette Lee has created smatterings of interesting choreography, constrained by the serious tone and the restrictive costumes.
Despite limited scope to demonstrate their acting range, principal cast members have a chance to shine vocally thanks to the score. As Stormy’s parents, Sally Bourne is warm and gentle, offset well by Robert Grubb as the gruff, cantankerous Mr Hojja. Bourne cherishes her act one ballad “Wild World,” which is all the more effective for its simple staging. Grubb has the well known “Father and Son,” which suits his highly expressive delivery.
Gareth Keegan stars as Stormy opposite Gemma-Ashley Kaplan as Lisa, the pair having to work doubly hard to portray a romance in which they barely have any scenes together, let touch or kiss. Keegan proves himself up to the challenge of playing a leading man, performing with gusto and confidence, and singing with a pleasant, natural tone. Kaplan sings sweetly in many a duet and is a likeable presence, impeded in her performance by playing an underwritten character with no inner voice. She demonstrates well-controlled flexibility between head and chest voice in “The First Cut is the Deepest.”
Rising tenor Blake Bowden gets some of the few laughs of the night as the vain Pat, also flexing his considerable singing power and showing himself to be a nimble dancer. Marney McQueen chews up the scenery as the outrageous Princess Zeena, placing her own brand of high camp on the malevolent role.
Strong support comes from the gruffly masculine Tony Cogin as Lisa’s father and the ever-versatile Rodney Dobson as Mr Matthew.
Most delightful of all is Jolyon James in the title character of Moonshadow. Although his make-up unfortunately brings to mind ’90s soapie villain Mr Bad, James turns in a wonderfully mellow performance as the well meaning but somewhat ineffective spirit. His voice is arguably the best matched to the style of music, and his stilt work is rather incredible.
While the overall effect may a bit far-fetched for older Cat Stevens fans coming along for the music, the attraction of those songs may win a new generation of fans, especially given the high quality of singers and musicians on board.
Photos: Gina Milicia
This review was published on Theatre People on 1 June 2012.