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Review: “The Night of the Hunter”

September 28th, 2006

 

by Rob Kendt

 

Imagine a Southern-fried Sweeney Todd—that’s what a musical of Davis Grubb’s creepy American Gothic novel The Night of the Hunter might be, and what this accomplished but uneven new effort by Claibe Richardson (music) and Stephen Cole (books and lyrics) fitfully suggests. This gnarled tale of small-town secrets and lies has a primal potency, some of it borrowed from a plentiful harvest of Biblical references, but much of it flowing from the age-old Oedipal struggle between a usurping stepfather and a suspicious son.

 

The interloper is a dubious preacher named Powell (Brian Noonan), who blows into the burgh of Cresap’s Landing after a poor local man is hanged for a robbery and murder, and all too quickly romances the dead man’s widow, Willa (Dee Hoty), and children, John and Pearl (Sy Adamowsky, Carly Rose Sonenclar). John is the doubting Hamlet character, who rightly fears the worst about Powell. Cole’s libretto milks this tension for all it’s worth, which is quite a lot.

 

Richardson’s music, on the other hand, labors against the grain of its inherent tunefulness to create a similar friction, with mixed results. Rousing gospel hoedowns and numbers like “I’m Lookin’ Ahead,” “Expect a Miracle,” and “One More Harvest”—the anthem of the play’s deus ex machina, a kindly mother hen played by Beth Fowler—are where the show’s heart beats strongest, and a series of plangent ballads for the kids, and a heartbreaking wedding-night plea by Willa, make a fine counterpoint. Richardson’s attempts to create menace are less bracing: Grating sing-song dissonances from a chorus of children, or a trio of gossiping ladies, don’t exactly make us shudder.

 

Nor does Noonan’s effortful baritone quaver, which snakes through the preacher’s songs with an ambivalence that never registers the requisite mortal threat; he comes off like an odd mix of Curly and Judd. And if we’re fighting the temptation to compare his performance to Robert Mitchum’s somnambulant turn in the eerie 1955 film version, one of Richardson’s signature choices doesn’t help: The show’s opening tritone motif, which recurs later in Powell’s rousing sermon about the “love” and “hate” tattoos on his fist, is lifted from Bernard Herrmann’s score for Cape Fear, another ’50s potboiler lit by Mitchum’s cool simmer.

 

Adamowsky and Sonenclar are irresistible Depression-era innocents, and a number of seasoned musical theater hands—Mary Stout, Gerry Vichi, Gordon Joseph Weiss, the priceless Fowler—make  crucial contributions to the show’s polish. (Allison Fischer, the tween vamp of Lestat, has a smallish role as a wayward orphan.) Nona Lloyd’s bare-bones direction manages some small miracles with a few trunks and a backdrop of stars, though this is clearly a show that would benefit from a more lavish production. Before it gets the inevitable Broadway makeover, though, this Night of the Hunter needs a little more flesh and blood on its bones.

 

The Night of the Hunter

Music by Claibe Richardson

Book & Lyrics by Stephen Cole

Directed by Nona Lloyd

37 Arts Theatre