Problem child

Whistle Down the Wind

After the Foo Fighters show.

After the Foo Fighters show.

Rated 2.0

Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber made his name in the 1970s with Jesus Christ Superstar, a Bible-based rock opera.

Nearly 40 years later, we’ve got Whistle Down the Wind, a Lloyd Webber musical (with messianic pretensions) set in the Bible Belt—rural Louisiana circa 1959.

The loose similarities don’t end there. Whistle’s leading man (known as “The Man”) is a tense, conflicted figure, resembling the Jesus character in the other show. And The Man is played by Eric Kunze, a Broadway hunk with high tenor pipes, known for playing the title role in Jesus Christ Superstar.

A bit more history: Whistle Down the Wind isn’t new (though this is its first visit to Sacramento). It was first mounted 11 years ago, as a reunion between Lloyd Webber and legendary director Hal Prince. (They did The Phantom of the Opera in the ’80s, and they’re still collecting royalties.)

But Whistle Down the Wind bombed in ’96. Various people have tried to “fix” the show; this touring production (directed by Bill Kenwright, Prince having long since moved on) being the latest try.

All we can say: The thing’s a mess. The anthem-like title song is catchy, and actress Andrea Ross does a lovely job singing it (beautifully supported by local French horn player Eric Achen, down in the pit).

But the show fails—miserably—as both storytelling and stagecraft. And that’s been a common fault with recent tours of other Lloyd Webber shows (Sunset Boulevard, Starlight Express).

The characters are clichés. Swallow, played by Ross, is a pure-hearted teenage girl, who imagines that the bloody, injured man she finds hiding in her barn is the reincarnation of Jesus. Actually, it’s The Man (Kunze), an escaped convict who (face-to-face with a credulous, underage beauty) finds kindness in his heart. There’s also a leather-clad motorcycle rebel with a James Dean hairdo, and a fat Southern sheriff (like you’ve seen in a dozen films).

The show genuflects occasionally about the evils of segregation. But the black actors have cartoonish bit parts. And despite the Southern setting, the score lacks a genuine gospel song.

The staging is dark, with repeated gloomy portents, opening with a funeral and ending with a fire. In between comes an embarrassing, hokey scene involving snake-handling Pentecostals (the rubber reptiles probably came from a Halloween store), and a predictable train-in-the-tunnel rescue. It’s all supposed to be serious, but the cardboard characters and melodramatic story can’t support dramatic weight. In the end, it isn’t even fun.