"Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to," according to one of the classic Christmas movies (the one set on 34th Street). That philosophy is both the joy and the frustration of the newest musical set during the Christmas season -- Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Whistle Down the Wind," which is receiving its world premiere at Washington's National Theatre.
With a book by screenwriter Patricia Knop, lyrics by Meat Loaf-lyricist Jim Steinman and direction by Harold Prince, the 1950s-period show features a host of lovely Lloyd Webber melodies and a more traditional book-musical structure than the composer's usual sung-through fare.
It's also brimming with eye-popping scenery (by Andrew Jackness) and lighting (by Howell Binkley) that evoke the rural Louisiana setting. These produce effects ranging from a ramshackle barn that unfolds like a giant folding screen to an overhead trestle with a speeding train.
All this is in service of a rather odd plot that is more of a fable than the gritty realism these trappings suggest. Based on a little-known 1958 novel by Mary Hayley Bell and the 1961 British movie that starred her daughter, Hayley Mills, "Whistle Down the Wind" is about a teen-aged girl named Swallow who discovers a stranger she believes is Jesus Christ.
Thematically, the musical deals with nothing less than the nature of true faith, which it contrasts with the traditions of hard-shell Southern Baptists and the extremes of snake-handlers. How much faith you have yourself -- or how much disbelief you are willing to suspend -- will probably determine the degree to which you buy the musical's premise.
Knop, whose script comes closer to the book than the movie, wisely introduces an element of skepticism into the proceedings. In particular, this skepticism infuses the central two characters. Identified simply as "The Man," Davis Gaines is a tattooed, cigarette-smoking potential Jesus who looks askance at the dozen wide-eyed children who come to worship him in his barn hideaway.
Gaines also has two of the musical's strongest songs -- "A Kiss is a Terrible Thing to Waste," a Meat Loaf-esque ballad sung with Swallow, her father and one of the show's new characters, a teen-age boy in love with Swallow; and "Nature of the Beast," a rousing solo in which he reflects on his dark psyche. (This character-revealing song, however, has a self-pitying, introspective quality better suited to a quieter singing style than the belted, show-stopping manner in which it is delivered).
Irene Molloy, who plays Swallow, also has doubts, and this splendid 18-year-old newcomer does an inspiring job conveying the inner struggle between those doubts and her strong desire to believe, a desire longingly expressed in her solo, "If Only."
Even so, setting up this peculiar story takes most of act one, and the exposition -- combined with the movie's somewhat clunky device of having Swallow and her two siblings rescue a litter of drowning kittens -- makes the first act far less fluid and satisfying than the second.
In addition, though the setting was moved from northern England to 1950s Louisiana, in part to allow a broader range of musical possibilities, Lloyd Webber passes up the chance to try his hand at zydeco, blues or gospel. Granted, Steinman is one of the best lyricists the composer has worked with since Tim Rice, and the instrumentation includes harmonica and banjo, but church hymns and country western are as close as the score comes to Cajun territory. Otherwise, the tuneful score, including the lullaby-like title song, is essentially standard, albeit extremely pleasant, Lloyd Webber of the Puccini/Rodgers and Hammerstein variety.
The entire supporting cast is highly polished. Stand-outs include Timothy Nolen as Swallow's hard-drinking widowed father and Lacey Hornkohl as a teen-ager approximately Swallow's age, though far less innocent.
One change from the source material that appears to reflect director Prince's sensibility is the aura of danger and darkness that suffuses the piece. It's a tonal choice that not only makes the story more credible, but -- without giving away the true identity of Gaines' character -- it also suits the harsh reality that underlies the children's leap of faith.
Religious subject matter is nothing new to Lloyd Webber, whose earliest hits were "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" and "Jesus Christ Superstar." But unlike those brightly hued rock operas, "Whistle Down the Wind" is a musical with dirt under its fingernails, a musical that tries to make a case for faith in a place where it seems least likely -- a poor, backwater community God seems to have forgotten.
Faith, the show suggests, is often a matter of opening yourself up to the possibility, an attitude that is probably also the best way to approach this affecting curiosity of a musical.
'Whistle Down the Wind'
Where: National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W., Washington
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and Dec. 23 and Dec. 30 (no performance Dec. 24-25 or Jan. 1), 7 p.m. Sundays, matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays and 3 p.m. Dec. 26; through Feb. 9
Call: (202) 628-6161
NTC Pub Date: 12/13/96