Let’s be honest: an all-singing adaptation of James Jones’s sprawling novel ‘From Here to Eternity’ sounds like an cataclysmically daft idea. But in actual fact, Tim Rice’s first new musical in 13 years very nearly works.
Following the lives, loves and, uh, violent deaths of a group of GIs posted to Hawaii in 1941, Jones’s semi-autobiographical story really isn’t jazz-hands stuff. But first-time West End director Tamara Harvey’s ruggedly masculine production strikes an appropriately gritty tone. With Rice and collaborator Stuart Brayson’s bluesy, percussive songs, the roiling bass rhythms of the soldiers’ voices and Soutra Gilmour’s stark, semi-derelict sets, there is little frivolous about the show.
Crucially, it has a magnetic lead in Robert Lonsdale’s enigmatic loner Private Robert E Lee Prewitt. He could be a brooding cliché, but in his first musical role, Lonsdale hits the right balance between hero, dickhead and vulnerable young man. And he has a fascinating voice, not a million miles away from Jack White’s bluesy yelp – he injects paint-stripper intensity to the show’s stronger numbers.
The elephant in the room is the 1953 film. For the most part, the leads escape the shadows of their screen counterparts, most notably Ryan Sampson, whose Private Angelo Maggio is drastically different to Frank Sinatra’s – puny, pugnacious and fluid of sexuality, there are intriguing shades of Chelsea Manning in his portrayal.
However, the movie’s iconic image, of Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster doing it in the Oahu surf, hangs off the show like a dead weight. Clearly Rice and co felt the scene’s inclusion was crucial. But they don’t seem particularly enthusiastic about it, and the sub plot about upstanding Sergeant Milt Warden having it off with the lonely wife of his commanding officer feels clangingly half-baked.
Blandly affable Darius Campbell and pouting Rebecca Thornhill struggle to inject interest into poorly sketched characters, lumbering ballads and an asinine love story. You can’t help but feel that everyone involved knows the only point of the whole romance is the arse-baring love scene that closes the first half.
Even without them, it’d still be flawed: the many perfunctory deaths feel poorly suited to the musical format – it feels weird that a key character can literally die without anybody making a song and dance about it.
In a strong year for new musicals, ‘From Here to Eternity’ is nothing like the best. But it’s a spunky effort from Rice and Harvey, and certainly more interesting than anything Rice's erstwhile writing partner Andrew Lloyd Webber has mustered in recent times. If nothing else, the gauntlet is convincingly thrown down for Lloyd Webber’s ‘Stephen Ward’, which opens in a couple of months.
By Andrzej Lukowski