Deeply evangelical 1950s Louisiana, in the American Deep South, is the setting for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical version of Mary Hayley Bell’s novel and Sir Richard Attenborough’s film of the same name. An impoverished farmer, Boone, and his three children have recently buried their family’s matriarch, a personal tragedy that they are all struggling to cope with in various ways. Christmas is approaching and the children are desperate for a miracle to restore their faith in life. When they find an injured man (‘The Man’) seeking refuge in their barn, they somehow come to the conclusion that he is the miracle that they have been wishing for….
Liam Baker is indeed The Man of this production; his pitch-perfect tenor voice has the range, quality and musicality to cope magnificently with Lloyd Webber’s intricate intervals and timing, plucking notes out of the ether without any assistance from the orchestra. What is even more impressive is the way he impeccably captures the complexities of his character throughout: the anger, the bitterness, the bravado and vulnerability, all in an excellent and effortless American accent. His rapport with the younger members of the cast is superb, especially with Morgan Dunn, and he gives a masterful, commanding performance.
Dunn, at 16, shows a maturity beyond her years as Swallow, Boone’s eldest daughter. Her singing voice is beautiful, powerful and emotive, while her poise, stage presence, confidence and depth of characterisation make her one to watch in the future. She has a completely credible relationship with Swallow’s younger siblings, played on opening night by Erin Bright (Brat) and Jayden Pettyfer (Poor Baby); together, the three of them are an engaging family unit, squabbling between themselves but also united in their grief for their mother and love for each other. Individually, they are as equally endearing and loveable. Bright has a singing voice with the potential to match Dunn’s as she develops and Pettyfer’s performance pulls at every heartstring!
There are good vocal performances in supporting roles from Dave Smith as the children’s father and Mick Attwood as a rather curmudgeonly but ultimately wise Ed, with his charming country and western number also revealing his more fun-seeking side. Howard Corbett (Amos) is the epitome of the 1950s American rebel: stylish, charismatic and with a singing voice that is great to listen to.
Reviewing a show on opening night is always a bit of a challenge – regretfully there were technical issues with mic balance, several lighting cues and scene changes that were awkward and lengthy (with some wobbly scenery causing concern), but the strength of the principal performances was unquestionable and I am confident that these will only continue to improve over the remaining performances.
The children in the chorus are full of enthusiasm, energy and engaging performances. They are obviously having a huge amount of fun and that is reflected back to the audience. Individually, some of their voices appear to be finding it difficult to cope with the score and the challenges of singing solo against such a powerful orchestral volume (not helped by the mic problems), but collectively they sound delightful and they give visually appealing performances.
Unfortunately, most of the adult ensemble seem to be lacking in the same level of energy and intention. There were tuning and timing issues from some cast members (the downside of using mics is that this becomes more apparent than without), as well as at times the orchestra, but hopefully these were nothing more than opening night nerves resulting in hesitancy. Overall, the orchestra have a lovely tone and there are a few chorus members who do stand out for all the right reasons.
The sound effects themselves are absolutely ideal: site specific, accurate and precisely timed. The lighting is atmospheric and good use is made of using different lighting angles for more dramatic effects – the climactic special effect towards the end of the show is unexpected and brilliantly effective, but I won’t give away that surprising element! The scenery gives a good representation of location and era, with the barn being aesthetically pleasing, but attention to detail for finishing touches and stability is lacking, although the costumes are a very good representation of 1950s America.
There are areas of this production that don’t quite reach the mark, but the things that they do well, they do very well indeed and it is certainly worth seeing this amateur production for the quality of Baker and Dunn’s professional-like performances alone. It runs until 18 November at 7.30 nightly with a 2.30 Saturday matinée.