The marketing whiz who dreamed up the slogan "Now and Forever" for composer Andrew Lloyd Webber's durable "Cats" seems to have predicted the composer's hold on American theater. Whether or not you love Webber musicals, you cannot avoid them. From the start, the Webber enterprises - especially "Jesus Christ Superstar," "Cats," "Evita," "The Phantom of the Opera," and "Sunset Boulevard" - overwhelmed the public by their sung-through style, orchestrated with a lushness of swelling chords and florid embellishments. The one or two memorable songs of each show repeat as leitmotifs, ensuring their clutch on the mind long after the curtain has fallen.
The stories, built around larger-than-life characters - the Biblical Joseph, Jesus Christ, Eva Pern, the Man With the Mask, and Norma Desmond, the most extravagant of faded Hollywood stars - are rivaled only by the scale of the settings in which they are presented, which is closer to a Cecil B. DeMille film or the Barnum & Bailey Circus than theater. Audiences bought tickets in record number, but critics were often less enthused. Kevin Kelly of The Boston Globe admired "Jesus Christ Superstar" for the "verve of its syncopation, the blend of its soft rock/pop style," but by "Evita" had changed his mind, calling Webber's music "slick kitsch."
Frank Rich, writing in The New York Times, thought "The Phantom of the Opera" was "long on pop professionalism" but found the "melody impoverished of artistic personality and passion." But, even Mr. Rich succumbed to the falling chandelier and opera-house trappings of the production, calling them "a tour de force." No matter about the critics; Webber, recently bestowed the title of lord by Queen Elizabeth II, rolls on. His newest efforts to reach America are "Whistle Down the Wind," at Washington's National Theater through Feb. 9, and "By Jeeves" at the tiny Goodspeed-at-Chester Theater in East Haddham, Conn., extended through Jan. 19.
"Cats," "Sunset Boulevard," and "The Phantom of the Opera" continue their long runs on Broadway and in touring productions on the road, along with a pastiche called "Music of the Night," starring the Webber diva Betty Buckley, that is also trundling around the regional circuit. (See dates below.) And a film adaptation of "Evita," starring Madonna, is currently showing in movie theaters. Technically, "Whistle Down the Wind," which had its official premire Dec. 12 in Washington, is the only true new show. "By Jeeves" is actually a revival of the Webber-Alan Ayckbourn adaptation of novels by P.G. Wodehouse, which was called "Jeeves" in 1975 when it failed to please British audiences (Webber's only flop). The revival opened last year in England where it became a surprise hit. "Whistle Down the Wind" brings a kinder, gentler Webber to the stage, but it remains to be seen if the show will prosper. The musical is based on the original novel by Mary Hayley Bell and the 1961 British film starring Hayley Mills as a young girl who discovers a strange man in the family's barn and decides that he is Jesus Christ come back to earth.
"Whistle Down the Wind" has been created by some of the best in the business: Jim Steinman as lyricist ("Bat of Hell," with more than 25 million albums sold, plus numerous other song credits); Patricia Knop, who collaborated with Webber on the book; and director Harold Prince, who has produced or directed more than 50 theatrical works, including "Phantom." The major changes to the material include setting the story in rural Louisiana in the 1950s instead of the English countryside; adding a score, of course; and introducing two new characters: a restless young woman trying to escape the back-water town and her uncertain boyfriend, a would-be love interest for Swallow, as the young girl is named. Chief among the problems is the blandness of the score. If there's a melody to be remembered, it is the curtain raiser, "Vaults of Heaven," a rousing hymn in the style of "Onward, Christian Soldiers." The title song is too abstract in its lyrics and hard to recall after leaving the theater. The rest of the score visits the American pop-music culture of the '50s, especially rock-and-roll and country western, but there are no references to the rich Cajun music of the area. The gorgeous sets designed by Andrew Jackness move on and off stage in rhythms more complex and imaginative than most of the action. They also point to an impression of back-roads America that could almost be "Oklahoma" country or the Kansas of Dorothy and Auntie Em, with a nod to Edward Hopper for the street-corner scenes. Howell Binkley's lighting invests the characters at various times with a glow that suggests the spirit within as well as the moon, the stars, and firelight. A troubling concern is the lack of focus on a central character. Unlike "Phantom" or "Evita," the man in the barn is a passive character, depending on the kindness of the children for survival. While we see him soften and change, he never takes charge, even in his roaring ballad of frustration, "The Nature of the Beast." The teenage Swallow, leader of the children, matures by the end of the story, but one wonders if the fortunes of the musical stage can be captured by a band of children, no matter how charming they appear.
The cast, however, is excellent: David Gaines as the Man, the unknown high school actress Irene Molloy as Swallow, Steve Scott Springer as Amos, and Candy Buckley as Aunt Dot. "Whistle Down the Wind" is headed for a June opening on Broadway; "By Jeeves" is a much smaller affair, set in a church hall somewhere in jolly old England. We meet the vicar of the parish, some of his parishioners, and Bertie, an upper-crust Brit who's rather dim-witted. He relies on his impeccable butler, Jeeves, to supply the how-to for his schemes, in this case a thwarted evening as star of the local stage. When Bertie's banjo is stolen, Jeeves advises him to tell some anecdotes about his escapades. Webber's score takes off from the pre-World War I jazz style, mixed in with a touch of Gilbert and Sullivan - again, nothing special, except for the delightful patter song "By Jeeves."
Ayckbourn has directed with a heavy dose of cuteness, mixed with mugging and posing to extremes. Given the show's mixed reception, a New York booking hasn't been mentioned. But rumors abound that "By Jeeves" will next head for either Washington or Los Angeles. Long-Running Shows Cats
Open-ended runs in New York, London, and Hamburg. Another company travels this month and next to Chattanooga, Tenn.; Birmingham, Ala.; Atlanta; Houston; and Miami. Music of the Night Los Angeles, through Jan. 19; Chicago, Jan. 22-26; Baltimore, Jan. 28-Feb. 2. The Phantom of the Opera
Open-ended runs in New York, San Francisco, Toronto, London; Cincinnati, through Jan. 25; Denver, through March 1; Des Moines, Jan. 29-March 1; also Fukuoka, Japan; Hamburg. Sunset Boulevard
Minneapolis, through Feb. 9; New York, Vancouver, B.C., open-ended runs.