“Don’cha like Hawaii?”
From Here to Eternity marks the return of noted lyricist Tim Rice to the London stage with this new adaptation of this World War II story, probably best known in its film incarnation and its iconic shenanigans in the surf. This treatment harks back to the original novel to introduce darker elements to the story yet it has also been transformed into a traditional West End musical, which brings with it a certain style that doesn’t always sit too well together with the material.
Set in the adulterous, misogynistic, homophobic, racist and bullying atmosphere of the G Company barracks in Hawaii in the summer of 1941, Bill Oakes’ book – based on James Jones’ novel of his own experiences – has a strangely disjointed quality as it struggles to weave together its three main strands. First Sergeant Milt Warden is hot for his captain’s lascivious wife; new arrival Private Robert E Lee Prewitt is less concerned about joining the corps’ boxing team and falls in love with call girl Lorene instead; and Private Angelo Maggio spends his time ducking and diving, making a quick buck by fraternising with the island’s gay population.
Oakes fails to intertwine these stories successfully with the result that people just disappear for long periods, their reappearance often a surprise reminder, so fully is the focus taken away from them. And little work is done to deepen the characters meaning the ensemble have to fight valiantly to make us care – Darius Campbell and Rebecca Thornhill are too stiff as the illicit lovers, with nothing done to explain the heat of their passion; Robert Lonsdale’s Prewitt and Siubhan Harrison’s Lorene fare much better as the fateful pair, resigned to their respective difficulties; and Ryan Sampson’s Maggio is an enlighteningly charismatic presence.
Musically, West End debutant Stuart Brayson manages a solid job, his relatively traditional style of composing a safe pair of hands and frequent reprises mean you can leave the theatre humming at least two of the tunes. But there’s little sense of thematic continuity – it feels like a pick and mix assortment at times, an ill-advised blues number being the stray bad one – and hardly any harmonic complexity. With such a large company, the opportunity feels ripe for soaring ensemble numbers and rich choral work but these rarely appear, this music is tunefully pleasant rather than soul-stirringly good.
Likewise, Tim Rice’s much-feted lyrical contributions (Minnesota gets rhymed with quota, Alabama with panorama in the most playful song that opens Act 2) don’t have the epic quality needed to really engage us with the fates of all concerned (and just who is Joe?). Because ultimately none of them are particularly deserving of our sympathies, even as the skies darken tragically for the momentous events of the finale, the exhortation to care for ‘The Boys of ‘41’ is undone by the all too fresh memories of what they were really like.
Tamara Harvey’s production does have a visual flair though, Soutra Gilmour’s set design an effect use of the large stage of the Shaftesbury. The use of projection has a varied hit rate but Javier De Frutos’ choreography takes full advantage of the talented ensemble with a range of eye-catching sequences, the boxing match and the slow motion work late on – Prewitt even gets a Light Princess moment – both particularly impressive. And the combined effect of all the elements does cohere into something fitfully effective, if rarely outstanding.