War of the WorldsJeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds arena show is an odd kettle of fish. For those not in the know, it isn’t actually a traditional musical, but rather originated in 1978 as a “concept album” which adapted H. G. Wells’ seminal early sci-fi novella. Although still containing some departures, it is a comparatively faithful adaptation which, unlike virtually all film incarnations of the tale, retains Wells’ original 1890s British setting and his major characters.

Wayne’s album was something of a hit at the time, with edited versions of certain songs getting considerable airplay, and has gone on to have quite a cult following, with innumerable reissues, remixes and the like, culminating some three decades later in this live show, which originated in the UK last year.

Just as this War of the Worlds is not exactly a musical, the production does not stage it as such. Instead it is something of a multimedia hybrid, combining those special occasions where a live orchestra performs beneath a playing movie screen to recreate its original score; and a “concert performance” of a musical whereby the principal cast and orchestra appear onstage without the benefit of scenery, props or significant staged action.

Thus we have Jeff Wayne’s concept album brought to life by the combination of a large, long screen which projects a variety of live and computer-generated footage of the story’s apocalyptic action, an onstage orchestra, and a small cast of singers who come out as needed to deliver their numbers.

However, much of the running time and most of the storytelling is achieved not through song but via narration delivered, as in the original album, by the late Richard Burton. Through the use of some digital necromancy, Burton’s colossal, disembodied head is rendered in CGI, materialising at the side of the stage whenever called upon to deliver his narration (in much the same manner as Sir Laurence Olivier’s post-mortem role in 2004’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow). Burton’s voice rings out with such an echoing quality that one scarcely needs to be reminded that this is a voice speaking from beyond the grave. Indeed, this disconcerting simulacrum is far from smooth, and I found myself half expecting it at any moment to say “Kal-El, my son, it is forbidden for you to interfere in the affairs of humanity”

That said, it is undeniably a lively show, with quite exciting screened visuals, an energetic band and a multitude of lighting effects. The piece-de-resistance is a notionally life-sized prop of one of the huge Martian tripod vehicles that lay waste to humanity, an imposing contraption that descends onto the stage partway through each act. Although impressive enough to look at, this entirely inanimate death-machine did seem rather stolid compared to its far more spry CGI cousins flanking it on the screen behind. But I’m sure to a child it would have seemed marvellous.

Indeed, invoking the viewpoint of childhood is perhaps an apt platform from which to assess this show, because its appeal depends very much on one’s sensibility. For the album to have achieved such cult status to warrant a show which is in turn successful enough to tour internationally, there must surely be more to this experience than what I took from it. Although it has an undeniable camp charm, Wayne’s synthaholic ‘70s score is exceedingly repetitive, containing a surprisingly small number of different musical themes for a feature-length show. I can scarcely imagine the appeal of the 7-disc collector’s edition of the album.

Yet to whatever extent one may find the constantly cycling music annoying, it pales in comparison to the seriously naff lyrics of the actual songs which, mercifully, are well spaced apart. Indeed, in my estimation the whole show would have been much better without the songs entirely, as a kind of narrated symphony with exciting visuals.

Tempting though it is to wholly condemn the songs, they clearly have some kind of audience amongst devotees and, I would imagine, children (not that a great many were in attendance).

The sparingly used cast was strong on the whole, with the notable exception of Justin Hayward, who represented the singing incarnation of Burton’s key protagonist. Although a perfectly good singer of course, Hayward was just deplorably hokey, visibly bopping along to the music as though performing in his band, The Moody Blues, rather than playing the character in question.

The original UK stars are supplemented by locals, who all did their best with the material. Shannon Noll gave an intense, fire & brimstone-come-rock & roll Parson Nathaniel, and was probably the best performer in the cast, although he too seemed in some danger of choking on large mouthfuls of scenery.

Although I observed a few parties leaving at interval, I’m sure a good time was had by most. Nevertheless, one couldn’t help noticing that the second curtain call was most definitely forced upon us rather than solicited by any spontaneously sustained applause on our part. While our response to the first series of bows had been relatively enthusiastic, this second, involuntary round was perfunctory in the extreme, and I’m glad for the performers’ sakes that the music was still loud enough for our now-lacklustre clapping to be hopefully not too apparent.

Although I can fairly confidently say that you are unlikely to be bored by Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds, whether you find it enthralling or unintentionally amusing is most decidedly a matter of taste.

The War of the Worlds

Venue: Sydney - Acer Arena
Date: Tuesday 18 September
Time: 8pm
Bookings: Ticketek 132 849 or www.ticketek.com.au

TOURING NATIONALLY - www.thewaroftheworlds.com.au

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