Unless you’re a fan of manga or anime, you’re probably wondering why the arrival of the European premiere of Death Note The Musical, the first time it’s been performed in an English speaking country, has caused such a stir. This concert version sold out three performances at the London Palladium and immediately announced a transfer to the West End’s Lyric Theatre.
The ‘In Concert’ tagged on to the title of Death Note The Musical might be doing the team a disservice, because this is about as close to a fully staged production as you can get. Director and choreographer, Nick Winston, has brought this musical to life in spectacular fashion, from Justin Williams’ set design to Kimie Nakano’s authentic costumes.
Based on the original manga series written by Tsugumi Ohba and illustrated by Takeshi Obata, this musical version has an electrifying score from Frank Wildhorn with lyrics by Jack Murphy. Following the source material, we meet Light Yagami, an intelligent high school student with firm views on justice, or lack of it. Ryuk, a shinigami passes a special notebook into the human world, and Light discovers that by simply writing a name in the Death Note, that person will die.
Light takes on a vigilante persona of Kira and sets about disposing of the world’s most hardened criminals. This obviously draws a bit of attention, and a police task force, led by L, endeavour to hunt down this criminal killing hero… to some, villain to others.
This is where Ivan Menchell’s book has to work hard (not forgetting the original manga series ran to twelve volumes). Something has to give, but Menchell manages to capture the dichotomy of the characters. Light doesn’t just sit in divine judgement but also in retribution, while L is successful in catching criminals, his methods are often called into question. This is more than good versus evil, it’s far more nuanced, and while the musical can’t possibly hope to replicate the original story, it does do a sterling job.
Looking at the queue outside the Lyric theatre, it’s abundantly clear this story already has a dedicated fan base, and they almost certainly get a little more out of this musical than everyone else. Yet, even for someone who’s never heard of Death Note, the musical version very comprehensively ensures that no-one is left behind. The story is clear, well-paced, and at times, utterly gripping.
With three male leads, the female characters are somewhat sidelined, though ironically, they do get the best songs. As Rem, Aimie Atkinson soars with ‘When Love Comes’, while Jessica Lee as Misa turns the Lyric into a concert stadium for the bouncing ‘We All Need A Hero’, which also includes just one of many examples of Ben Cracknell’s exquisite lighting design. There’s not a bad song in the bunch, and numbers like ‘Hurricane’ and ‘Playing His Game’ give the cast plenty of opportunity to show off their vocal prowess.
George Maguire, who joins the company for this Lyric run as Ryuk, revels in the camp villainy of the shinigami. Dean John Wilson has a host of musical theatre credits to his name, but it’s as L, that Wilson really seems to shine. It’s a pitch perfect performance of an intriguing and enigmatic character. Joaquin Pedro Valdes’ gentle and subtle portrayal of Light is a joy from beginning to end, as Light transforms from idealistic student to cold-hearted strategist, Valdes never misses a beat.
The producers and their creative team have achieved something incredible, not only bringing something entirely different to the West End, and by extension a whole new audience. But in their hands this beloved manga becomes a magnificent musical. Death Note The Musical in Concert runs at the Lyric Theatre for ten performances, but if this doesn’t have a further life then audiences may be echoing the sentiments of Light by asking ‘Where Is The Justice?’