Without a Paddle 

Willows production sells a classic novel down the river.

The new musical adaptation of Davis Grubb's dark novel The Night of the Hunter isn't wretched. Nor is it particularly inspiring, even with all the energy and enthusiasm of its world premiere at the Willows, and that's unfortunate. The Willows got this work-in-progress because writer Stephen Cole and director John Bowab wanted a safe place to work out the kinks before approaching Broadway. What with a concept album on Varèse Sarabande, workshops at New York's Vineyard Theatre and Chicago's Goodman, and plenty of buzz, there's a lot riding on this production. But there's also a lot of audience expectation -- Night was published 51 years ago, and soon made into a stunning and rather weird film noir. Fans of either the novel or the film may find that this new version falls short of the mark.

In Grubb's Depression-era tale, family man Ben Harper gets desperate and holds up a bank, killing two men. He takes the secret of the money's location to the gallows, after which his cellmate, wandering preacher Harry Powell, decides to visit Harper's new widow to see if she might have some idea as to the whereabouts of the cash. Preacher has been through more than his fair share of widows and their money ("Was it six, Lord, or twelve? I disremember," he says in the film). With his charm and his bone-handled switchblade, he figures he can separate Willa Harper from the loot and build a nice little tabernacle with it.

Problem is, while Willa believes the money is rotting at the bottom of the river, her children John and Pearl know differently. Which leads to a nail-biting game of cat-and-mouse between Powell and young John, the murder of Willa, and the young'uns fleeing down the river in a tiny skiff. Powell follows along the shore, creepily singing a hymn that the film's director Charles Laughton immortalized with an indelible image of a man on horseback silhouetted against a lonely sky. Eventually he finds the kids holed up with the tough old Rachel Cooper -- but will her faith (and shotgun) be enough to protect the children?

It wouldn't be fair to critique the musical based solely on how closely it resembles the film version, even though the film -- starring the menacing, über-sexy Robert Mitchum and a young, delicate Shelley Winters -- is the version most of us know. But comparing it to the original novel does it no favors either. Although both film and musical are faithful to the novel's text in their different ways, the musical fails because it isn't true to the novel's spirit. Somewhere along the path to making the story palatable to a musical-theater audience, this Night lost its mojo. There's a lot of talk of Jesus, quite a few upbeat songs, and very little in the way of menace or dirt.

The problem can be summed up easily -- besides not being especially musically inventive, this work just isn't scary. The film plays up Powell's evil nature by opening with a shot of children finding one of his victims in a cellar. The novel itself is no less caustic, detailing as it does his vehement hatred of "perfume-smelling things, lacy things, curly-haired things"; the way he strokes the switchblade in his pocket while watching a burlesque performance; an encounter in which he nearly kills a young prostitute; and his gathering madness as he chases the children down the river. There's a deeply twisted sexual thing going on here, one Grubb clearly intended, but in bringing the story to the stage, Cole has neutered Powell, making him angry and driven -- yet not that engaging. Brian Noonan as Powell starts to pull it out a little more in the second act, but by that time it's too late; even his beautiful sustained notes and tortured, angular movements don't carry enough dramatic weight. It may seem strange to bemoan a writer's attempt to make a character more sympathetic, but the decision to make Powell less immediately menacing sucks a lot out of the story.

Powell isn't the only one getting the revisionist treatment. The children have been changed -- Pearl is a little older and more self-contained, which makes it harder to believe that John needs to protect her -- and John himself has been recast as a nervous, shivering kid, versus the lip-bitingly brave one of the novel or the one played so quietly and well in the film by Billy Chapin. The whole story really rests on John's small shoulders, and we don't get that here; as my companion noted, even if actor Daniel Lachman "were the Gielgud of singing children," the script and lyrics don't support the role.

It's also hard to believe that the kids are really in all that much danger because there are just so many people around all the time: townsfolk, taunting children, Willa's employers Icey and Walt Spoon, the "shanty trash" who live in riverside shacks. The isolation of John and Pearl simply isn't believable. The second act is better than the first, but we still don't see how desperate and hungry and scared these kids are. We don't see them trying to steal food, getting thinner and dirtier as they move farther and farther from their home. Obviously the film's long shots of the skiff floating down a glowing river couldn't be replicated here, but surely there is some way of capturing the sense that these kids are totally on their own. Having the stage full of people doesn't help.

The musical also lacks what The New York Times called the "astonishing verbal magic" of Grubb's novel. Grubb was native to Moundsville, West Virginia (the town where Ben Harper is executed), and intimately familiar with the Ohio River and its lore; the flavor of the region and the river are strong in the novel. The river is critical to the story -- the third section of the four that comprise the novel is titled simply "The River" -- yet the stage version doesn't capture that.

Some of the changes are positive: Pawnshop owner Miz Cunningham gets to do more here, mostly articulating how the town ostracizes the children of a bank robber while lusting after the robber's ill-gotten cash. The Willa of this vision is tougher than the wispy one Winters gave us, and more interesting. Lynne Wintersteller really sells the tricky bedroom scene where Willa approaches her new husband expecting love and getting instead scorn and Scripture. The brilliant song "Wedding Night" begins with Willa singing Let him be good, and we know she's talking about Powell being a gentle, attentive lover; by the end she's singing Let me be good and hoping that she can push aside all those sinful desires of the flesh. Wintersteller nails this transition and Willa's further descent; the scene where she is preaching at a revival about how she drove her first husband to commit murder so she could have "jewels and clothes and paint" is one of the most genuinely intense parts of the whole production. And other than the constant references to Jesus -- who isn't invoked in either novel or film, perhaps because there Powell's relationship is more clearly with the vengeful Father than the gentle Son -- the musical isn't quite as treacly, religionwise, as the film tends to be.

But the infusion of New York talent (Noonan and Wintersteller), a stage design heavy on dripping trees that apparently tries (and fails) to evoke cinematographer Stanley Cortez' haunting use of shadows, and a passel of kids who dance well isn't enough to make this flawed Night fly. Cole and Bowab need to go back to the well of Grubb's novel and see if they can draw sweeter water.


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