“What a terrible tragedy.” Indeed. That’s the lyric cried out as, in theory, the famously magnificent Cornish home at the heart of the story burns to the ground at the climax of the musical of “Rebecca.”
Or, rather, when smoke is pumped into the auditorium, the frontcloth glows red and cast members race around to startlingly little dramatic effect. Daphne du Maurier’s beloved, near-Gothic romance centers on a mystery – but the chief mystery here is what anyone thought they were doing entrusting a large-scale property (once famously destined for Broadway) to a 265-seat off-West End house with a creative team and production budget so woefully underfunded.
The premiere of an English language version of Germany’s runaway musical hit (by bookwriter and lyricist Michael Kunze and composer Sylvester Levay) comes at a considerable production cost, immediately made plain by the 19-strong cast and the 18-piece band. But anyone expecting the new production to be an automatic hit needs to think again: The multi-location plot, running from extravagant Monte Carlo hotel to washed-up Cornish beach hut via multiple grand interiors including a courtroom and a plot-crucial staircase, requires a level of investment and invention that are painfully missing from director Alejandro Bonatto’s production, which is eye-widening in all the wrong ways.
In so small a theater with almost no wing space, activating the audience’s imagination with more abstract visuals could have yielded results. But production designer Nicky Shaw opts instead for a thuddingly literal approach. Despite the libretto describing “priceless antiques and possessions,” locations are clumsily established via single items of furniture and large, poorly lit flats. The necessity of set changes leaves an abundance of scenes played against a white curtain on which video footage — the sea lapping the shore, giant geraniums blooming to indicate love growing — are projected. As a result, the element almost wholly absent throughout the long evening is atmosphere.
The belief must be that the atmosphere would be supplied by the score, with 39 listed songs. Beyond the yards of sung dialogue with moody underscoring, Levay’s actual songs are mainly in the key of Lloyd Webber-esque romance, complete with multiple repetitions. But there’s a problem when the song you emerge humming is something from “Phantom of the Opera” rather than the show in question. Levay and his notably strong-voiced cast know how to handle a vocal climax, but most of the songs are so shapeless that the high points arrive suddenly out of plot necessity, rather than any musical logic.
With a band of this size there are felicities in the orchestration, not least in the elegant writing for woodwinds, but even those are smudged by a poor sound design that runs the gamut from loud to much louder. Everything sounds flattened, and all the vocal power sounds as if it comes from loudspeakers rather than the actors.
Matters are not helped by the English translation by, of all people, Christopher Hampton, whose plays (including “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” and translations of works by Yasmina Reza) are so deliciously deft. All too often his meandering lyrics makes the lead character the mistress of mis-stress.
Take the song in which the famously frightened and unnamed central character finds her voice, “Mrs. deWinter Is Me!” Rounding on her nemsis Mrs. Danvers, who is handling a plant belonging to the dead title character, Lauren Jones sings, “Orchids never were my style/ Azaleas are far more versa-tile.” Warming to her theme, she adds, “Empty those flower pots/ On the compost pile.” All this manages to suggest is that there’s more to writing a lyric than making dialogue rhyme.
As for the servants in the all-important household, the lumpily choreographed scenes among the under-characterized yet over-acted staff make “Downton Abbey” look as if it were made by the realist Ken Loach.
The house’s staff are, of course, all in thrall to Mrs. Danvers. Stern of manner, dressed in black and glued, whenever possible, on the staircase of the overwhelmingly brown house, Kara Lane never misses an opportunity to do fierce Wicked Lesbian Acting. As her boss, Maxim, Richard Carson sings well but the book scenes are so schematic that he is left with nothing to do but look handsome and deliver extremes of emotion. Engaging motivation is entirely missing.
The one person who emerges with dignity utterly intact is Jones as the central character. Never less than vocally confident while maintaining, until the last moments, the necessarily mouse-like manner, she clearly deserves a production and, crucially, a director who could allow her to shine.
In the 85 years since its publication, du Maurier’s novel has never been out of print and Hitchcock’s 1940 movie is the rare case of a work that equals its original source. But as Ben Wheatley’s misguided 2020 Netflix movie version proved, the material is far from fail-safe. Reading the novel or revisiting Hitchcock is a far better bet than witnessing this sorry, truly astonishing attempt at re-invention.