Chicago Theatre Review
More of a Gust than a Gale
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s name is synonymous with big, splashy, adult musical extravaganzas like “Phantom of the Opera,” “Evita” and “Sunset Boulevard;” however, he’s also known for children-oriented shows, such as “Joseph…Dreamcoat,” “Cats” and his recent adaptation of the film classic, “The Wizard of Oz.” His seldom-produced 1996 musical is in the latter category, contrasting children’s innocent faith with the hard-core suspicions found in adults.
Set in a small Southern town deep in the 1950’s Bible Belt, Webber’s musical is filled with Baptist theology and religious music. Indeed, the paper-thin plot often mirrors many of the parables. The story (adapted from a novella by Mary Haley Bell) revolves around three children being raised on a dirt poor farm by Boone, their widower father. One night Swallow, his eldest daughter, discovers a wounded, bearded man hiding in their barn. When asked his name the startled Man blurts out, “Jesus Christ!” forcing the sheltered teenager to think she’s met the Messiah. She shares the secret with her siblings, younger brother Poor Baby and little sister Brat, and naturally the news spreads among the other children of the town. Soon The Man finds himself spinning stories for his band of juvenile disciples. Coincidentally, the town Sheriff has warned the adults to be on the lookout for a dangerous escaped convict who may be hiding out in the vicinity. Swallow and the children’s blind faith in The Man is contrasted with the adults‘ religious fervor to roust the devil from his sanctuary, providing the play’s conflict.
There are many promising, even very good elements to recommend Jedlicka’s production. Topping the list is the 38-member ensemble committed to this musical. They’re led by area newcomer Haley Jane Schafer, making her Chicago debut as Swallow. The true heart of this production, this young actor not only looks the part but possesses a superb, clear, natural singing voice that really delivers. Also making his area debut is Michael Vaughn as The Man. Gifted with a solid voice and the appropriate swarthy, good lucks necessary for this role, Vaughn provides some of the show’s finest musical moments. As Boone, Edward MacLennan’s gorgeous baritone soars (enjoyed previously in Jedlicka’s “Phantom of the Opera” and “Man of La Mancha”) blending beautifully with Ms. Schafer in the title song and later in his own touching, “If Your Mother.” Other vocal standouts include Warren Karas as the Sheriff (although his name and bio are egregiously omitted from the program!) Wayde Matthews as Edward, Brennan Roach as the Preacher, Christopher Skyles as Earl and Andrew Sickel, whose vocal acrobatics allow him to shine as bad boy, Amos.
However, what this production is missing is a clear vision and directorial guidance. Dante J. Orfei, Morton College’s longtime artistic director, merely provides his actors with blocking, but that’s all he’s given them. Many are somewhat inexperienced and would profit from some dramatic instruction. Few of his actors seem to be committed to what they say or sing causing the production to often feel more like a musical recital with some dialogue thrown in for good measure. Motivation for staging, dramatic involvement with the story and character relationships are quite simply missing.
Webber’s music could also stand to be trimmed here and there, especially during some of the longer orchestral passages (while nothing happens on stage while the actors wait for the next vocal line) and repetitive verses (most notably in “The Nature of the Beast”) that don’t offer the audience anything new musically or dramatically. Some of the shorter songs could be eliminated and would never be missed also helping to streamline the show. Even Kelsey Overberg’s pedestrian choreography does little to give this production a much-needed lift.
Technically, John Warren’s musical direction of his 13-piece orchestra (hidden off stage right) achieves Webber’s intent, which ranges from gospel to rock ‘n’ roll to ballads. Musical delights include “Cold on the Radio,” “Tire Tracks,” “For the Sake of the Children,” “Cold” and “No Matter What.” Michael Nedza and Michael A. Kott’s impressive scenic and multimedia designs complement each other and nicely move the story along. Lindsay Prerost has done a fine job costuming this large ensemble, including 14 children, transforming her cast into poor, rural southerners from the Eisenhower era.
With so many positive elements to be found in this seldom-seen musical by one of theatre’s most prolific contemporary composers, it’s a shame that its emotional connection has been neglected. Given all the time and hard work spent by a devoted cast and crew this production deserves stronger wind for their whistling.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented by the Jedlicka Performing Arts Center at Morton College, 3801 S. Central Ave., Cicero, IL.
Tickets are available by calling 708-656-1800 or by going to www.jpactheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other Chicagoland productions can be found at www.theatreinchicago.com.