Whistle Down the Wind first appeared as a novella by Mary Hayley Bell, then as a film directed by Bryan Forbes, and later as a little-known musical by Richard Taylor and Russell Labey. For some reason, this adaptation, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Jim Steinman, transplanted the story from the north of England to Louisiana. It appeared in 1996. This production is directed and produced by Lee Geraghty assisted by Hazel Green, musically directed by Kent Ross assisted by Franca Ross and choreographed by Robert Mulholland.
Set in a close-knit and God-fearing town and centering on an innocent teenager, an escaped murderer and a bunch of children, it does not seem a likely fit for Lloyd Webber’s style. Indeed, Whistle was not that well-received when it first came out and has yet to have a professional debut in Australia. CPAC, presenting the show twenty-eight years after its original debut in Washington, missed out on presenting the Australian premiere by a few months. But at any rate, Whistle is a powerful story with soaring duets, unconventional music theatre characters and very profound moments.
The story begins in an insular town where the citizens are mourning one of their dead. We are introduced to fifteen-year-old Swallow, played by Georgia Thompson, and her little siblings Brat (Katya Adkin) and Poor Baby (Soren Adkin). Grieving the loss of their mother, the children are very ready to cling to God. Their faith is deep. These three young actors are all you would want them to be. Their timing is wonderful, and they work together very harmoniously. In particular Thompson’s voice has a lovely purity and so does her performance. Swallow is a touchingly spiritual character who, despite her naivety, you can only respect. Different characters react to her innocence in different ways, but she never compromises her strong principles.
Although their song “I Never Get What I Pray For” is good, the magic doesn’t really start until the title track. Thompson and Austin Moore, as the children’s father Boone, are sublime when they sing this. It was just one of those magic moments when vocals soared and outstanding talents were showcased and enhanced each other. I would have loved to hear Moore get another moment like this, but at least we heard him in this wonderful number. Boone works to boost the morale of his children but it is clear they are going to have a bleak Christmas.
When Swallow enters her father’s barn she discovers a bloodied young man (Mitchell Stewart) hiding there. When she asks who he is the man does not listen. He just mutters under his breath, “Jesus Christ!” Swallow has an inclination to take his words seriously. She is sincere, and her faith-filled heart is hungry for a miracle. She and her siblings convince themselves that the stranger is Jesus Christ come among them.
The man is actually a fugitive who has spent five years in prison for murder. But he needs the children, for they are anxious to deliver food to him and keep him comfortable. Likewise they need him. Other children find out the secret. The unnamed man becomes their unofficial savior. He relishes the role they give him, as he tells stories, feels valued, and gives them something to hope for.
For him, their misplaced belief is the ideal cover. He is facing the obvious dilemma of to where he will ultimately escape. As local man Amos (Brock Downie) shows interest in Swallow, The Man faces another dilemma. He is as attracted to her innocence as Amos is, but for different reasons. It is clear that Amos is a pretty average young man. But the fugitive wants to leave Swallow’s innocence intact, rather than take it. The attentions of Amos make him very possessive.
Meanwhile Amos seduces the raunchy Candy (Monica Kwiecien), who is the opposite to Swallow. Downie and Kwiecien singing the rock number “Tire Tracks and Broken Hearts” is a highlight, as we see there are young folk in this town who are worlds apart from Swallow. Amos leaves Candy waiting while he pursues Swallow. But Swallow’s head cannot be turned by passion. She is only interested in her chaste relationship with her “Jesus.”
The man entertains the children as best he can. Mitchell Stewart gives a performance that strongly taps into the profundity of this character. There is a still a cheeky, playful boy hiding in the man. He still has hope and exudes an almost ethereal quality. Gifts from the children capture his heart. What makes him such a tragic character is that we can see what worthy qualities he does have. Stewart has a thrilling voice and beautifully pinpoints the man’s status as a character whose soul is struggling between light and darkness.
There were a lot of cast members to outfit, but costumiers Fiona and Emma Sparrow achieved what was probably the desired look – a motley collection of mostly pious and respectable, though rather poor, citizens from rural Louisiana. The scenery was well-executed by Lee Geraghty, Ashley Jenkins and Gaynor Downie. There were clearly some skilled and talented scenery painters. The children’s home was a standout set with its fine detail. There was an awful lot of realism in the casting, I noticed. The actors are all ages and shapes and sizes, as they should be considering they’re portraying a cross-section of country people.
There is a great deal of elegance in the way the story of Whistle Down the Wind unfolds. When the climax comes we find out a lot about The Man’s motivations.
However to the end he remains mercurial and ambiguous, which is what makes him such an interesting character, just as Swallow remains stalwart in her morality. Whistle Down the Wind is a departure for Andrew Lloyd Webber, but this fascinating show, which presents a tale beautifully told, is definitely one to see!