Theatre Review: From Here to Eternity

Date Posted: 24/10/2013

Rebekah Tailor was transported to the picture postcard shores of Hawaii, 1941 for the world premiere of From Here to Eternity - Tim Rice’s first original stage musical in 13 years.

An all-singing all-dancing military company, scantily clad escort club girls, a drag queen, rolling queers, an ex-boxer ex-bugler, and two illicit love affairs, all parcelled up within the picture postcard shores of Hawaii, 1941. Adapted from James Jones’ 1951 novel, From Here to Eternity contains all the elements of a solid gold musical; but with a saccharine storyline, a shallow narrative and insipid characters, I’m afraid it drops like a lead balloon.

I’ve neither read the novel or seen Fred Zinneman’s 1953 film version, and it made a refreshing change to be part of a theatre audience with no expectation of what would unfold. The date and the setting is of course something of a giveaway, as the impending tragedy of Pearl Harbour looms from the outset. But the image of Hawaii’s island paradise is shattered long before Japan begins its air assault.

Beyond the sickeningly sweet romance which blossoms between troubled Private Prewitt and escort Lorene, and indeed the overzealous love affair of platoon sergeant Warden with his commanding officer’s wife; is a gritty portrayal of army life for the soldiers of G Company - ‘30-year men’ from the lowest rungs of society enlisted in the peacetime army. This narrative strand - complete with violence, racial slurs, homophobia, and an unjust bureaucracy - is actually the production’s redeeming feature. The rest is mush. 

There’s no denying the musical talent of the four protagonists; Siubhan Harrison’s rendition of Run Along Joe is a belter of a tune, and Rebecca Thornhill as long-suffering military wife Karen Holmes is the most convincing of the four lovers. The problem is characterisation. With a lack of backstory it’s difficult to feel any kind of empathy to their plight, and as such it’s near impossible to care about their fate.

Lead man Robert Lonsdale is inconsistent in his portrayal of Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt - ‘Prew’ to his non-existent friends; going from a brooding soldier with strong convictions, to doe-eyed sap at the arrival of Lorene, who’s principles are eventually undermined by sheer naivety, making him look rather a fool.

On the flip side, Ryan Sampson as Private Angelo Maggio is a secondary character to a secondary narrative, who ends up carrying the show; bringing a much-needed injection of humour and wit which endears him to the audience.

With a struggling story and clichéd characters, it’s Stuart Brayson and Tim Rice’s music and lyrics which throws the production a lifeline. And it’s everything you could hope from a new musical score. Original, catchy, memorable; it has a distinctive bluesy feel, fused seamlessly with the sound of the tropics from its ukulele choir and a noticeable military aspect with the bugles and drums. Highlights include Fight The Fight, Thirty Year Man and You Got The Money, all of which succeed, where the characters fail, in rousing the audience and stirring some emotion.

Javier De Frutos’ slick choreography lends itself perfectly to the military precision of the piece, markedly so when contrasted with the raunchier movements from the club scene; and all numbers are executed with finesse. The sequence depicting the bombardment of Pearl Harbour is also clever, using movement, lifts and falls over stage props, and is gripping without being melodramatic. This supported by simple but effective graphics projected on to the back of the stage, along with the echoing sound of bomb blasts and the smattering of machine gun fire, makes the attack on Pearl Harbour the true climax to the show, rather than what’s to follow.

Despite the exciting choreography and the best musical score the West End has seen for some time; I still came away feeling disappointed. The tribute to the boys of ’41 was somewhat undermined by the two hour portrayal of an island paradise overrun with privates, prostitutes, players and princesses. Its attempts to capture the drama and romance often result in sensationalism and theatrics, and at times it’s difficult to take seriously. I would sit through it again, but it would probably be more satisfying to download the soundtrack.

From Here To Eternity is currently booking at the Shaftesbury Theatre until 26th April 2014. Group travel organisers should note that performance times are Monday to Saturday at 7.30pm with Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 2.30pm. Group rates are available for parties of ten plus.

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