Back in 2013, you couldn’t travel on the underground without spotting giant posters for Tim Rice and Stuart Brayson’s new musical From Here to Eternity. It was Rice’s first new show since Aida and Brayson’s first in the West End. Despite a stellar cast, the show would receive mixed reviews and eventually closed early, but that didn’t stop it garnering a legion of devoted fans, who will be delighted that the first London revival is now playing at the Charing Cross Theatre.
This isn’t From Here to Eternity’s only revival, shortly after it’s West End run it played in America, where the story of Robert E. Lee Prewitt probably resonated a little more. The musical, with a book by Donald Rice and Bill Oakes, is based on the original and uncensored novel by James Jones, so there are some subtle differences in plot compared to the successful film adaptation.
There have also been some big changes since the original West End run, and not all of them for the better. The book has been completely re-written and those devoted fans will notice snippets of familiar dialogue in unfamiliar places. Swathes of scenes and songs from the first act have been moved to the second and vice versa, and as a result we lose the careful construction of the characters as individuals.
What was a sweeping romance is now a gritty war musical, with a love story bolted on, but never fully realised. The wonderful ‘Don’cha Like Hawaii’ is replaced with ‘I Know What You Came For’ which makes Mrs. Kipfer (Eve Ploycarpou)’s whorehouse considerably less glamourous and a lot seedier. Some twenty-five songs are reduced to sixteen, even the gorgeously emotive overture doesn’t make the cut. Almost unforgivable though, is the removal of ‘More Than America’, the act one finale that set us up for From Here to Eternity’s most famous scene, which is also no more.
It’s set in the lead-up to, and immediate aftermath of, the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. But for the men of G Company, stationed on Hawaii, this isn’t a war, “least ways it isn’t so far”, and so the fighting is contained within the Barracks. Prewitt, a prize fighter who refuses to box, falls in love with a prostitute named Lorene. His superior, Warden, is in love with an Officer’s wife and Maggio is making a little on the side rolling queers.
The relationship between all these characters suffers as a result of the changes to the book. Warden no longer helps Prewitt in the same way, and because this Prewitt hasn’t given up the bugle as well as boxing, we lose the heart wrenching moment when he’s forced to pick the instrument up to sound the last post for his friend.
But you can almost overlook all of this as Stuart Brayson’s score remains one of the most creative and stirring in musical theatre, it’s truly a delight to listen to, even though the fifteen-piece orchestra is now slimmed down to just five, under the impressive direction of Nick Barstow for this chamber musical version, it still sounds impressively bold. The ensemble numbers, especially the finale, are powerful in both emotion and volume.
‘Fight The Fight’, which was used to market the original continues to pull its weight here, and the mix of swing, blues and rock and roll creates an impressive sense of military grit. But, it’s the fact that any song in the show could be the standout number is what sets From Here to Eternity apart from other musicals.
Maggio’s ‘I Love The Army’ is a clever and melodic dive into the desperation of the character, and it’s performed with breathtaking beauty by Jonny Amies. Jonathon Bentley fills a big pair of boots left by the show’s original Prewitt, giving one of the best performances of this year, with an outstanding portrayal of the character.
Lorene and Karen lose a lot of stage time in this version, but both do get some stunning solos by way of compensation, with both Desmonda Cathabel and Carley Stenson more that rising to the occasion.
Director Brett Smock has created a visually stunning production, and remarkably, made this work in the round, something previous productions at the Charing Cross Theatre’s newly reconfigured space have struggled with.
The posters on the underground are smaller this time round, as is the production, but the butchering of the book aside, From Here to Eternity remains a superb musical with an outstanding score. It is the music and the cast, in particular Jonathon Bentley and Jonny Amies, that make this revival a roaring success.