“What a terrible tragedy.” Indeed. Those are the lyrics he screams as, in theory, the famous and magnificent Cornish house at the heart of the story burns to the ground at the climax of the musical’s “Rebeca.”
Or rather, when smoke is pumped into the auditorium, the front cloth lights up red and cast members run back and forth to surprisingly little dramatic effect. Daphne du Maurier’s beloved quasi-Gothic romance centers on a mystery, but the main mystery here is what anyone thought they were doing by entrusting a large-scale property (once destined for Broadway) to a 265-seat office.West End house with a creative team and a production budget so woefully insufficient.
The release of an English-language version of the smash hit German musical (by writer/lyricist Michael Kunze and composer Sylvester Levay) comes at a considerable production cost, as immediately evident by the 19-person cast and 18-piece band. But anyone expecting the new production to be an automatic hit should think again: the multi-location plot, which runs from the extravagant Monte Carlo hotel to the ramshackle Cornish beach cottage via multiple grandiose interiors including a living room audiences and a plot-crucial ladder, requires a level of investment and invention sorely lacking in director Alejandro Bonatto’s eye-opening production in all the wrong ways.
In such a small theater, with almost no space in the wings, activating the audience’s imagination with more abstract images could have worked. But production designer Nicky Shaw opts for a wildly literal approach. Although the script describes “priceless antiques and possessions,” locations are clumsily established through individual pieces of furniture and large, poorly lit apartments. The need for scene changes leaves a large number of scenes reproduced against a white curtain on which video images are projected: the sea washing the shore, giant geraniums blooming to indicate that love is growing. As a result, the almost absent element during the long evening is the atmosphere.
You have to believe that the atmosphere would be provided by the score, with 39 songs listed. Beyond the yards of sung dialogue with melancholic underscoring, Levay’s actual songs are primarily in the key of Lloyd Webber-style romance, with multiple repetitions. But there’s a problem when the song you emerge humming is something from “Phantom of the Opera” and not the show in question. Levay and her remarkably strong cast know how to handle a vocal climax, but most of the songs are so shapeless that the high points arrive suddenly out of plot necessity rather than any musical logic.
With a band this size there are kudos to the orchestration, especially the elegant writing for woodwinds, but even those are marred by poor sound design that runs the gamut from loud to much louder. Everything sounds flat and all the vocal power sounds like it’s coming from the speakers and not the actors.
Things do not improve with the English translation of, precisely, Christopher Hampton, whose works (including “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” and translations of works by Yasmina Reza) are so delightfully skillful. Too often, its meandering lyrics make the main character the master of stress.
Take for example the song in which the famously anonymous and scared central character finds her voice, “Mrs. DeWinter is me! Rounding out her nemsis, Mrs. Danvers, who manages a plant belonging to the dead main character, Lauren Jones sings: “Orchids were never my style / Azaleas are much more versatile.roof tile.” Warming to his theme, he adds, “Empty those pots / into the compost pile.” All this manages to suggest is that writing lyrics involves more than making dialogue rhyme.
As for the servants of the important house, the choreographed scenes between the poorly characterized but overacted staff make “Downton Abbey” look as if it were made by realist Ken Loach.
The household staff, of course, are in thrall to Mrs. Danvers. Stern-mannered, dressed in black and glued, whenever possible, to the stairwell of the overwhelmingly brown house, Kara Lane never misses an opportunity to put on a ferocious naughty lesbian performance. As her boss, Maxim, Richard Carson sings well, but the book’s scenes are so sketchy that he has nothing to do but look handsome and convey extreme emotions. An attractive motivation is completely missing.
The only person who emerges with dignity completely intact is Jones as the central character. Never less than vocally confident while he maintains, until the last moments, the necessarily mouse-like attitude, he clearly deserves a production and, crucially, a director who allows him to shine.
In the 85 years since its publication, Du Maurier’s novel has never gone out of print, and Hitchcock’s 1940 film is the rare case of a work equaling its original source. But as Ben Wheatley’s misguided 2020 Netflix film version demonstrated, the material is far from fail-safe. Reading the novel or revisiting Hitchcock is a much better bet than witnessing this regrettable and truly surprising attempt at reinvention.