As with Stephen Ward, a terrific story, exotic setting and experienced production team all indicate a high chance of success, but the magic is just not there. The talented cast give the show their all, and a rousing finale after a dramatic finale brings the show to a satisfying close, but too much of the action is muddy, uninvolving and dangerously close to camp.
Perhaps audiences familiar with the 1953 movie, or James Jones’ 1951 novel, will have more luck focusing their attention during the first half of act one. The cavalcade of characters is not helped by so many men looking the same in uniform.
In the absence of any sort of “I want” song, we are left floundering as to where to place our affections and attention. The lead characters are mostly inscrutable, and the two central relationships are basically based on physical attraction with little or no romance involved.
There is the feel of an old fashioned musical, but with Bill Oakes’ book containing modern foul language and no sentimentality. Having a man start a relationship with “I want to go to bed with you” may be somewhat realistic, but it gives the romance nowhere to develop. And Dolly Levi certainly never had to explain that her scar was from her hysterectomy from when her husband gave her gonorrhea.
Stuart Brayson’s score contains some stirring moments, and while there is an air of quality about the music, of which there is plenty, it is difficult to recall specific melodies afterwards. Rodgers and Hammerstein were really onto something with all their overtures, entr’actes and reprises. Tim Rice’s lyrics are strong, at first listen, capturing the voice of the character types most effectively. Rice’s influence may be seen in the framing character of Maggio, who guides the audience in a way not unlike Che in Evita.
Given the generous proportion of gay men involved in musical theatre, it should have been possible to come up with a more satisfactory representation of Hawaii’s “queers.” The Waikiki club may have scored the most impressive set (a vivid full stage backdrop of neon pink flamingoes and palm trees), but the hair and costume design for the men was lamentable, not to mention the dialogue. It may have been accurate for the time and place for enlisted men to go out “rolling queers,” ie going gay-for-pay, and of course the only gay character had to shoot his brains out, but overall this all seemed to be off the mark given the demographic of music theatre’s target audience.
Production values are at a premium, with plenty of money evident on stage. Soutra Gilmour’s set design creates an epic feel with plenty of visual interest and variety. The main focus is two huge, badly damaged concrete arches, which are an ominous spoiler for the final minutes of the show (either that, or the next show at the Shaftesbury is Follies). The rear floor rises steeply for the famous beach scene, the crashing waves created by projection designer Jon Driscoll. Gilmour’s costumes for the women feature gorgeous tropical prints that are distinctively Hawaiian without being clichéd.
Director Tamara Harvey keeps energy high, eliciting committed performances from the cast. Javier de Frutos has more success choreographing the prostitutes than the soldiers, but makes a great contribution to the visual spectacle of the show overall.
The lead and ensemble cast are exceptionally strong, and are a significant aspect of what makes the show ultimately quite likeable. Established pop and stage star Darius Campbell is a knockout as masculine First Sergeant Warden. Fitting the tried and true description “tall, dark and handsome,” Campbell’s husky voice and magnetic presence make him the ideal leading man. It is no surprise to read that he has previously played Sky Masterson and Billy Flynn. Campbell will doubtless walk away from this show, as he did with Gone With The Wind, and straight into his next starring role.
Experienced stage performer Rebecca Thornhill has the difficult role of frosty officer’s wife Karen. Give her abrasive personality, Warden’s attraction to Karen is far from clear.
Far more likeable is prostitute-who-just-wants-to-get-out Lorene. Siubhan Harrison gives a lovely performance in the vexingly underwritten role. Robert Lonsdale stars as the impenetrable Private Prewitt, creating some degree of interest in the role thanks to his intense performance.
From Here to Eternity plays at Shaftesbury Theatre, London until 26 April 2014.
Photos: Jonah Persson