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Hard to believe, but so easy to enjoy

By |2008-01-17T09:00:00-05:00January 17th, 2008|Entertainment|

By Robert W. Bethune

Suppose Stephen Sondheim did a musical of “To Kill A Mockingbird” re-set in a remote British village. The result might be strange, especially to a British audience aware of the nuances of the location. I feel that way about “Whistle Down the Wind,” now at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre.
Here we have Andrew Lloyd Webber doing a musical based on the British novel by Mary Hayley Bell and the British film starring her daughter, Hayley Mills. He’s resetting the story to rural Louisiana in the late 1950s. He’s using many of the stereotypes that Harper Lee used: Children are good, black people are good. White people are bad, except for a white father who has lost his wife and struggles to raise his children.
The story, casting and staging ask us to accept, in that time and place, an integrated church and an integrated honky-tonk. It asks us to accept that an escaped convict can hide in a working barn on a working farm for days on end. It asks us to accept a deputy sheriff who thinks a double-barreled shotgun can fire three times in a row. Last but hardly least, it asks us to accept that a group of local children will believe that the escaped convict is Jesus Christ. Yes, it’s very much a Biblical fable, parable and allegory, but it certainly presents its share of stumbling-blocks to one who would believe.
Under Bill Kenwright’s direction, key elements of the story are quite honestly played for laughs. That’s really a good thing, since we would hardly accept them played straight.
It’s an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. You will go away with certain musical themes running in your head, whether you can hum them or not, because they have been beaten into you over and over again until they saturate every neuron in your brain. As one expects, some of the songs have been covered with great success by various pop stars.
Making up for all that, you will hear some truly beautiful, lyrical and really very Romantic music. Justine Magnusson, as Swallow, and Eric Kunze, as The Man, have a series of scenes and duets, particularly in the second half of the show, that are the heart and soul of the production, and they are beautifully acted and performed. By the time we come to their passage through Gethsemane, all the stumbling blocks have been passed and we can focus on the intensity of their combined doubt and belief.
The cast is excellent; the many children are charming. Some of the best lines go to Swallow’s little brother, played with ease by Ausitin Zambito-Valente.
The design work, by Paul Farnsworth and Nick Richings, is all barn wood and cutouts, quite fine except for the lame conflagration at the end. The sound of the live orchestra and singers is so thoroughly processed and amplified that it sounds exactly like a good home stereo turned up loud – an almost universal fault in live musicals these days.

‘Whistle Down the Wind’
Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit. Tue.-Sun., through Jan. 27. Tickets: $30-$79. For information: 313-872-1000 or

About the Author:

BTL Staff
Between The Lines has been publishing LGBTQ-related content in Southeast Michigan since the early '90s. This year marks the publication's 27th anniversary.