Friday, November 16, 2007

Whistle Down the Wind - 5th Avenue Theatre

Whistle Down the Wind by Andrew Lloyd Webber

5th Avenue Theatre

Ticket Office: 206.625.1900

Online Tickets Office

5th Avenue Website

1308 5th Avenue Seattle, WA 98101

Whistle Down the Wind is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “new” dramatic musical. New to America, that is; I’m going to assume that the number of Seattle residents who went to the West end of London for its premier in 1998 and revival in 2006 are few enough to ignore. This touring company gave the show its American premier at the 5th Avenue Theater on November 16 and will be running through December 2nd. It’s the story of a sixteen year old girl, Swallow (Andrea Ross) who finds a man hiding in her father’s barn. She and the other children of the town become convinced that the man is Jesus Christ come down to earth to wash away their sins and usher in a new age of joy and light. Set that against the backdrop of a small town obsessed with sin and searching for an escaped convict, and you’ve got a premise that is sure to impress. There will be moments of tear jerking intimacy, personal revelation, the powers of sin and redemption. It’s all here. So what else are you expecting out of such a big name production? Are you yearning for a Cats inspired spectacle of costume and dance? The touching and introspective depth of Jesus Christ Superstar? Or maybe just some catchy tunes to stick in your head and hum on the way out of the theatre... at Whistle Down the Wind on 5th you’ll get a touch of the first two and a heaping helping of the third.

The first thing an audience member might notice is a loose handout detailing the 15 member strong “children’s ensemble” cast from local sources. This might make alarm bells go off in any theatre-goers head. If there is anything that can ruin a show, it’s poor acting on the children’s parts, and unfortunately, their acting doesn’t astonish. However, they are great singers, and hearing the pure tones of a child layered against the complex and throaty sounds of adults makes for a stunning contrast, particularly important to this show where innocence and evil clash. Continuing the theme of innocent and evil, the two leads, Andrea Ross and Eric Kunze (The Man), carry the show with their voices. Eric plays the tortured and generally sexy escaped convict, and really brings all of the emotion one could hope for to songs like “So Many Cries” and anything he sings with Andrea Ross. The title song “Whistle Down the Wind” is excessively catchy and eminently whistleable, but there are some forgettable numbers caught up between the stand outs. Matt Skrincosky gives us an admirable performance of Amos, the love struck leather jacket-wearing motorcycle riding teenager. He sings a powerful duet with Candy, his girlfriend (Carol Denise Jones) about halfway through the show in “Tire Tracks”, one of the few stand out pieces not starring either of the two leads. One of the few concerns I have about the story and characters, besides the two main leads, is that it seems to be undeveloped and you had better not be looking for any resolution in regards to their little side stories; this is all about Swallow and the unnamed Man, unabashedly so.

Technically the play is a bit of a letdown. The fanciest thing you will see on stage is the large and impressive “curtain” made of wooden boards and shaped and slatted to look like the side of a barn. Simple sets might be acceptable at a small limited run show, but from a nationally touring company the audience should expect better. There are really only four sets used for the performance: the house, the barn, the town, and the bar. And there isn’t much else to be said about them. If you imagine a house or a barn, you have probably imagined something more interesting to look at than the set designer of Whistle Down the Wind has (Paul Farnsworth). Also, costumes are hit and miss. The Man looks great in his bloodstained white t-shirt, but one has to wonder who chose to put Andrea Ross in a full body smock for the entire play. Because she is not very tall to begin with, and surrounded by an ensemble cast of 6-11 year olds, sometimes it can be hard to remember that she is supposed to be sixteen years old. One might concede, however, that perhaps it was a conscious choice on the part of the costumer (Paul Farnsworth), to remind us that she is just on the cusp of womanhood, not quite a woman and not quite a girl. Finally, the lighting was the last sub-par piece of the play. The action takes place during the Christmas season; could we have a clue that it is cold out? Or snow? Or anything that hints at the show’s Americana roots? The association between mood lighting and southern Americana should be so strong that I am taken out of the moment when a pure white spotlight glaringly points out who is talking.

To sum it all up, Whistle Down the Wind is a blast. Ignore that nit-picky third paragraph, because this play could be done in a black box with no set lights or costume and I would still recommend going to see it. The orchestra is superb, the songs stick in your mind, and that central premise which explores redemption and innocence and the power of belief is moving to the point of tears. I know I cried, even while admonishing the sets and costumes and lights in my mind. The story moved me to tears. And when actors can do that with all the technical handicaps, I know it’s a play worth seeing.

Guest Writer: George White

Edited and posted by: Jack Jarden

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