There’re an awful lot of things to like about the new Bill Oakes/Tim Rice/Stuart Brayson musical From Here To Eternity, currently playing at The Shaftesbury Theatre, and based on James Jones’ 1951 novel of the same name, not least of which are the glossy production, great cast, and astonishing Javier De Frutos choreography.
Why then did I keep looking at my programme wondering how much more I’d have to sit through? In short, why was I left so thoroughly…bored?
Well, although what was happening on stage was at times clever, entertaining, sexy even, it just wasn’t – with one notable exception – emotionally engaging.
As a result this already-long show, which in the programme, including prologue, finale, and reprises runs to 28 musical numbers (but has been undergoing restructuring prior to opening night) seems to last for something approaching an eternity itself.
The problem? Book-writer Bill Oakes never successfully answers those two most basic of questions – Whose story is it? And what do they want?
Answer these questions fully and explicitly in the first fifteen to twenty minutes of a show, and I’ll know where I should be investing my emotional capital, and if you’ve done a good job I’ll be with you until the final curtain.
From Here To Eternity is, I’m afraid to say, an abject lesson in just how long an evening at the theatre can feel if these questions aren’t answered, or at least aren’t answered successfully.
The plot details the rather pedestrian goings on at an army base in Hawaii immediately prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941, and although there are sub-plots, it is essentially two love stories played out in parallel. Herein the problem lies… Who am I supposed to be investing my emotional capital in?
Darius Campbell plays Sergeant Milt Warden, who wants to sleep with the attractive wife, Karen (Rebecca Thornhill), of his commanding officer, Captain Dana Holmes (Martin Marquez).
He gets the girl about half way through act one, and is then left flip-flopping through the rest of the show trying to sort out the consequences.
Robert Lonsdale plays Private Robert E Lee Prewitt who wants to…well bit of a problem there… We know what he DOESN’T want. He DOESN’T want to box, or play the bugle, or get involved with other people. He fails on all three counts, falling for local hooker Lorene, Siubhan Harrison, and failing to stand up for his friend, Private Angelo Maggio played by Ryan Sampson, (and this is the notable exception) who gives not only the most committed performance, but is also blessed with the best realised characterisation of the evening, and by far the best song, the act two ‘I Love The Army’, which is full of Italian-American emotion, and genuinely affecting.
I’ve haven’t read the book, or seen the film, of From Here To Eternity, but I suspect neither leaves so many loose ends to tie up. It’s therefore rather useful that the attack on Pearl harbour ends up as a welcome, if tragic, distraction from the hum-drum intrigues of the protagonists, and is conjured up to great effect by John Driscoll’s cinematic and proscenium-busting projections.
The real star of the evening however is Javier de Frutos’ seamless and exhilarating choreography which, although it gives ‘period feel’ where necessary, really encapsulates the repetition and soul-destroying regimentation that army life brings, without, for the most part, seeming like choreography at all. It is to the credit of Director Tamara Harvey that so much dance is included, filling the stage, and lifting the piece immeasurably.
Overall Tim Rice’s lyrics are good, though not flashy, but are held back by Stuart Brayson’s score which rarely rises above the serviceable, and at times sinks to the predictably banal.
I wonder as well why no one bothered to point out that Brayson’s lovely tune sung repeatedly by the ladies of the Congress Club is actually the opening of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s lovely tune ‘The Sun Whose Rays’ from The Mikado!
The show has a lot of repetition, not always to useful effect, and at a couple of points I felt myself asking why a given character was actually singing at all.
There’s work still to do, and that’s what previews are for, however opening night is less than a week away, and although the show has already been trimmed – but could do with losing another twenty minutes – and re-ordered, I don’t think it has yet been fixed.
As Stephen Sondheim so famously said, musicals aren’t written, they’re re-written. Tim Rice and team have a lot of work still to do to make this the hit it deserves to be.