Every night of live theater is an adventure. When things go right, it's a thrill ride. When things go wrong, as they did at the final preview of Lyric Stage's premiere of the musical adaptation of The Night of the Hunter, it's like stumbling through a carnival fun house. The sense of danger is exciting—like, when pieces of heavy scenery threaten to crush child actors—but the rising anxiety that comes on while watching a show hurtling toward disaster is ultimately too exhausting.
Even if all the technical elements worked seamlessly in this production, and perhaps by the second week of the run they might, the script and music are so hopelessly blunder-bound it will hardly matter. In translating an exquisitely terrifying 1955 film noir thriller into a turgid musical drama, book writer and lyricist Stephen Cole (he wrote last season's The Road to Qatar at Lyric) and composer Claibe Richardson have wrung every bit of style and suspense out of it. The only nail-biting moments at the performance reviewed came when parts of the set, a noisy behemoth designed by Scott Osborne, got stuck or didn't appear on cue, forcing actors to ad lib their way out of some massive cock-ups.
It was a bad idea to begin with to try to adapt for the stage a movie in which most of the key action happens in a small boat floating down a river. In that boat are two frightened children desperately fleeing a murderer. Down the river they go as the villain rides along the bank on horseback (well, now he's just on foot), always catching up just as the children think they're safely out of his reach.
The movie is a timeless gem, the only film great actor Charles Laughton ever directed. Based on a novel by Davis Grubb, the screenplay was credited to James Agee, one of American cinema's finest critics and film writers. Agee would die in 1955 of alcoholism and it was long thought that Laughton had a hand in cutting and polishing Agee's nearly 300-page first draft of The Night of the Hunter (subsequent biographers of Agee and Laughton dispute that). The final screenplay is efficiently, beautifully structured, a blend of crisp, terse dialogue with allowances for ambient sound and scary stretches of no sound at all. The musical? Overstuffed with 27 songs and cliché-ridden chatter. The movie was 93 minutes. The musical, with fewer plot points, is almost an hour longer.
The story, a Depression-era Southern Gothic mystery, pits a homicidal false prophet against an avenging angel. In prison, con man "Preacher" Harry Powell (one of Robert Mitchum's iconic film roles; played in the musical by hired-in Broadway baritone Davis Gaines) learns from a convicted bank robber that there's $10,000 in cash hidden with the doomed man's two children back in a small town on the Ohio River. After the robber is hanged, Preacher heads straight for the kids, determined to find the money. He seduces, marries and kills their mother. The boy, John, intuits Preacher's cruel intentions early on. John grabs little sister Pearl, who clutches her lumpy rag doll tightly for good reason. They jump in a fishing skiff and off they go. Downriver they're rescued by a sweet but tough old lady named Rachel (Lillian Gish in the film; Lois Sonnier Hart in the musical). She's the one who takes on Preacher in a final, fatal face-off.
As a marvel of spooky, expressionistic black and white cinematography by Stanley Cortez, The Night of the Hunter looks like no other film noir of the '50s. Every precisely framed shot reflects a shadowy netherworld of images from a child's perspective. As the kids hunker down in the boat wending its way downstream in perpetual night, there are overhead views of them through glowing spider webs and from exaggerated close-ups of toads and owls. Several film sequences are considered noir exemplars: Mitchum's sharp black shadow casts larger-than-life on the wall of the children's bedroom; the corpse of the mother (Shelley Winters in the movie), long hair tangled among weeds at the bottom of the river; Mitchum in silhouette, riding slowly up on horseback to the tiny, oddly angular house where the old lady sits in the dark in profile like Whistler's mother, shotgun resting across her lap. Throughout the film, Mitchum's Preacher character hums or sings the old hymn "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms," which becomes a haunting theme of impending death.
Horses and river bottoms aren't the stuff of musical theater; so much of what makes The Night of the Hunter an unforgettable movie, including that hymn, has been lost. The Lyric production, directed by Cheryl Denson, unfolds on a stage that looks oddly bare, despite some huge, flat building facades that are supposed to slide in and out on the far edges of the Carpenter Performance Hall space. A long ramp connects platforms stage right and left and the "river" is the stage floor out front. But Osborne's scenery keeps defying its own logic. Suddenly a window on what was the ice cream parlor folds out into a bed where Preacher and widow Willa (a well-cast Julie Johnson in the Winters role) have their wedding night fiasco. In a key scene on a fishing dock, townsfolk keep walking across what's been established as the river. Add a misbehaving cyclorama that crashed down on scenery rooftops a time or two, plus a balky boat that wouldn't "float" (a stagehand finally came out and pushed it), and lights that kept key actors in the dark (and not on purpose) and the show was doomed to drown under its own weight. (Later I learned that the lighting design by Julie S. Maroney had not been loaded into the theater's computer system at the preview. They were just winging it.)
There's a lack of focus all around in this style-less Night of the Hunter. Maybe Denson, a director known for tight control over every detail in a show, simply gave up under the pressure of composer Cole's heavy rewrites. (It looks that way.) Denson may have abandoned any hope of a true noir mood in this production—the final look of the show is of a bare-bones, backwoods Music Man, with the 76 trombones replaced by a plague of locusts—but she did coax remarkably good performances from the two kids in the leads. Jack Vangorden as John has a fine solo with "The Watch," a "wishing song," as it's called in musical theater vocabulary, about wanting an expensive gold watch in a shop window. Little Marlhy Murphy, despite losing concentration to grab a slipping head-mic battery pack, has adorable sibling chemistry with Vangorden. The grown-ups, Gaines and Johnson, sing with power and conviction, but they're stuck selling trite, forgettable songs about Ouija boards and getting washed in "The River Jesus."
That would be the river without water in it, where, like the show itself, the boat just won't float.