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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows. And we take the opportunity to explore other vintage productions preserved online. Until things return to normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

Rebecca - The Musical
Stuttgart 2012 and YouTube 2021  

Connoisseurs of Broadway disasters may know about the musical Rebecca, but the story is bizarre enough that I have to run through it before getting to my review.

Originally produced in Vienna in 2006, the German-language adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier's novel was a hit that led to other productions in Europe and Japan. In 2008 Broadway producers announced a New York opening in 2012, but it was postponed, then rescheduled, then re-postponed, then re-rescheduled.

The announced problem was that one of the German financial backers had died, but then a new one was found and named. And then things got really weird.

An anonymous whistleblower (later identified as the Broadway press agent) spread the word that the named backer simply did not exist. It turned out that the European agent sent to find a backer simply invented one just to get his commission.

Accusations and lawsuits flew around, that agent went to jail, and the Broadway producers lost their option.

And now on YouTube appears an obviously bootleg shot-from-the-audience video of a 2012 Stuttgart production (in German with English titles) and we can see what the fuss was all about. And what it was all about is an adequate-but-not-much-more musical melodrama in the Phantom Of The Opera mould.

There is a lot of atmosphere, a few good songs and three potentially strong roles. But it never really escapes the feel of being imitation Lloyd Webber.

A reminder: the novel has a poor and unassuming woman marry a rich widower only to feel overpowered by constant reminders of his glamorous first wife it's a kind of ghost story without a ghost.

Adaptors Michael Kunze (book and lyrics) and Sylvester Levay (music), also creators of the German musical Elizabeth, wisely take the novel's atmosphere of darkness and doom as their keynote so much so that the occasional attempts of comic relief clash badly.

From the start the unnamed second wife is defined by her own sense of inadequacy and not belonging, the husband by a hidden darkness and haunted quality, and the malevolent housekeeper by an obsessive devotion to her previous mistress.

So, plenty of opportunity for strong Lloyd Webber-style soul-baring dramatic anthems. It would not be fair to comment on Kunze's lyrics since the English titles provided by whoever posted the video are adequate but prosaic. But Levay's music too often just misses the power the moment wants.

The opening number, built inevitably on the novel's first sentence 'Tonight I dreamt of Manderlay, sets the tone well, but neither the girl's song on falling for him nor his about her really registers.

The best song in the show, 'Rebecca,' goes to the evil housekeeper, and both a sympathetic friend and a blackmailing villain get solid second-level songs.

But the husband's big self-defining soliloquy plays more like narrative viewed from the outside, the chorus numbers (mainly by servants reacting to plot events) are all just filler, and a masquerade ball that plays a big role in the plot inescapably suffers by comparison to the one in Phantom.

The key performers range from magnificent to disappointing. Christina Patten sings nicely but is simply miscast and misdirected as the heroine, neither looking nor acting mousy enough.

The whole drama hinges on the contrast between the two wives and the question of why the man would go from one to the other. But here the answer is simple she's a pretty girl.

Wooden leading men are endemic to the musical theatre, so Jan Amman's emptiness as the husband doesn't particularly stand out. But again, in this case the play demands some ambiguity and Bronte-like hidden danger in the man, and it is sorely missed.

(I should note that on a key plot point THE key plot point the musical follows the 1940 film rather than the darker and morally ambiguous novel, further limiting the character's depth.)

The real starring role, the big song and the dominant performance all belong to Pia Douwes as the housekeeper. She is the only one of the three to really commit fully to her role, giving us a Mrs. Danvers who is not only actively evil but unambiguously barking mad.

It is such a magnetic performance that the energy level of the show drops precipitously whenever she's offstage, and her big song rightly stops the show.

A shaky camera and recurring focus problems betray the bootleg source of the video, but it is watchable, and the sound quality is good.

Would Rebecca have succeeded on Broadway? I suspect that the judgment 'It's OK but it's not Lloyd Webber' would have limited its prospects.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Rebecca 2021