Eric Kunze and company in Whistle Down the Wind
(© Joan Marcus)
Eric Kunze and company in Whistle Down the Wind
(© Joan Marcus)
It's no secret that Andrew Lloyd Webber is an unabashed sentimentalist -- as is, evidently, his vast public. The wonder of Whistle Down the Wind, a 1996 musical venture that has since been revived successfully in London and has now embarked on a seven-month, seven-city U.S. tour, is how neatly it skirts mawkishness, despite the piety-prone subject matter.

Admirers of the cinematic source material -- a quiet little black-and-white 1961 masterpiece starring Hayley Mills and based on a novella by her mother, Mary Hayley Bell -- will recognize the story line: A naive young farm girl (renamed "Swallow" in the musical and played with exquisite delicacy and restraint by 16-year-old Andrea Ross) stumbles upon an injured convict (Eric Kunze) hiding out in her family's barn. She mistakes his waking curse, "Jesus Christ!" for an introduction.

The musical adds a few heart-wrenching twists to the original. Newly bereft (her mother has just died), Swallow and her two younger siblings -- nicely played by the astringent Nadine Jacobson and hammily portayed by newcomer Austin J. Zambito-Valente -- are desperately seeking some succor in their hardscrabble lives. The notion that the stranger could perhaps resurrect the dead only fuels their urgent need to believe.

Webber's boldest move, in concert with his rock-icon lyricist, Jim Steinman, was to transpose the plot to a Louisiana backwater in 1959. The relocation affords plenty of local color -- rabid religiosity, racial strife -- plus an entrée for all-American musical vernaculars ranging from gospel to rock. The latter category tends to fare better, in part because of Henry Metcalfe's odd choices as choreographer. The holy-roller numbers, "Keys to the Vaults of Heaven" at the outset and "Wrestle with the Devil" at a truly inopportune, momentum-quashing juncture in Act 2, get the Martha Graham treatment: all-but-static tableaux accompanied with entreating arms and oh-my-aching-head cringes. Of the rock numbers, only "Cold" really pops, and that's thanks to the extraordinarily kinetic Gerry McIntyre.

Despite a fine voice and acting chops, Matt Skrincosky struggles a bit as pompadoured would-be teen rebel Amos, but that's because the role is both cliched and murky. For some reason, Amos has the hots for Swallow, who is unforgivably shrouded from start to finish in a shlumpy plaid gunnysack. Production designer Paul Farnsworth deserves kudos for his dramatically stark, fast-moving sets, but this wardrobe decision seems too patently calculated to play up Swallow's greenness. Sure, Swallow is rural and poor, but why get her up like an anachronistic extra from The Grapes of Wrath?

In an underdeveloped subplot, Amos, while putting the moves on Swallow, is also planning to skip town on his baby-blue motorcycle with a girlfriend, Candy (the subpar Carole Denis Jones), whose jealousy leads her to blow the lid off the para-Christian lovefest that Swallow, her siblings, and ultimately a score of local children have got going on in the barn.

Basically, there are just a few too many wrinkles enfolded into the revised story line -- especially when what we're really craving is more time with Swallow (every note out of Ross' throat is sheer heaven) and her possibly menacing guest, billed simply as "The Man." As the convict-escapee, all Kunze needs in the way of costuming is a ripped tee baring burnished biceps. And when he nails his anguished high notes, you get some sense of what all the fuss about Enrico Caruso was about. Yes, he's that good.

Whistle Down the Wind still needs some tinkering to be fully successful. But what is has going for it now is a killer protagonist matched with a gifted performer who can movingly convey a woman/child's unshakable faith. Webber has made a specialty of such experience-and-innocence conflicts before, and this combo has the markings of a winner.