Many will remember Whistle Down the Wind from the 1961 film starring Hayley Mills as the young girl who mistakes Alan Bates’s injured criminal on the run for Jesus Christ. She hides him in the family barn, where she and her siblings and other children bring him gifts and ask him for Bible-style stories. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1996 musical relocates the action from rural Lancashire to steamy, late-50s Louisiana (the musical palette smudges bluegrass, rock, ballads, gospel; Stuart Morley’s arrangements). With lyrics from Jim Steinman, whose writing credits include Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell, the feel is less Sunday school, more gothic noir.
In Tom Jackson Greaves’s tightly honed production, the tonal contrasts are most stark (and moving) in the pre-interval crescendo scene: children gather in the barn around The Man (whom they believe is Jesus), singing a gentle, chiming lyric, “The demons are gone, The young are strong”. Meanwhile, circling adults in the world beyond menacingly pound a heavy-on-the-bass, revivalist number, “You’ve got to wrestle with the devil”. Elsewhere, though, the book (by Lloyd Webber with Patricia Knop and Gale Edwards) does not present oppositions so simplistically.
The 12-strong company of actor-musicians, along with six younger cast members, delivers strong characterisations of people struggling with hard choices in a gumbo world of racial tensions, religious revivalism, small-town vindictiveness and teen rebellion. All the performers are outstanding, but special mention to Robert Tripolino as The Man, Manichaean angel/devil, and to Lydia White’s girl (older than Mills’s film character), moving through childish innocence to burgeoning adolescence.
Jackson Greaves, as director and choreographer, thrillingly fuses movement with music, turning his actor-musicians into a chorus (almost in the style of Greek tragedy), expanding the world of the action, amplifying the characters’ emotions and pulling together extremes of every day and supernatural. What seems incredible becomes affectingly believable.
Whistle Down the Wind is at the Watermill theatre, Newbury, until 10 September