Broken Wings at Charing Cross Theatre – review
After a series of concerts, the musical finally gets a full production
If a musical were to be judged solely on its actual music, then Broken Wings would be something of a triumph. Dana Al Fardan and Nadim Naaman's lush, haunting melodies swoop and soar, evoking the fragrant warmth of the Middle East, irresistibly channeling drama, romance and loss through the strings, reeds and percussion of Joe Davison's delicate but stirring orchestrations. Musically at least, this is a ravishingly lovely score.
Elsewhere though, this adaptation of Khalil Gibran's ambitious 1912 poetic novel, a doomed love story ahead of its time with its questioning of religious authority and progressive attitude to women's rights, feels like a watchable, if not always coherent, hybrid of operetta and those humourless sub-Les Mis epics that periodically popped up in the West End back in the 80s and 90s. It's ironic that a show based on such ground-breaking source material comes over as so determinedly old-fashioned.
The journey of Broken Wings to full production has been by way of a number of semi-staged concert versions and one wonders if that still might be the most satisfying way to experience it. In a concert, it's possible to get swept away by the majesty of the music and the bravura vocal performances while turning a blind eye to the anything-for-a-rhyme lyrics and lack of character depth and development. In a fully realised iteration, there's no escaping the heavy-handed similes and metaphors, weighing down almost every utterance like over-ripe fruit (see, even I'm at it now) and the baldly uninspired storytelling.
Gregor Donnelly's attractive saffron and earth coloured scenic design and Bronagh Lagan's traverse staging conjure up cosmopolitan, turn of the 20th century Beirut, establishing it as a civilised metropolis every bit the equal of its more familIar (to us) European counterparts of the time. Both set and blocking suffer from an over-literalness though that stops the story from taking enchanted wing. Despite the extensive use of a revolve, there's a lot of rushing from one side of the stage to the other during impassioned ballads, presumably just so that both sides of the audience get sufficient face time with whichever character is singing/emoting.
If the acting is solid throughout, Naaman's rather flat book, which tends to quote Gibran rather than try to find a way to give him a distinctive theatrical voice, doesn't really require much more than that. The singing, however, is outstanding. The music may be wonderfully easy listening for us in the audience but it's demanding, rangy and full throttle for the performers. They all acquit themselves magnificently. Naaman himself and Lucca Chadwick-Patel as older and younger versions of Gibran sing with power, sweetness and sensitivity, matched by Noah Sinigaglia's rather beautiful turn as their beloved. Ayesha Patel is another thrilling voice as Gibran's spirited childhood friend, who also provides what precious little comedy relief there is.
Arguably the best song, a rousing, spine-tingling anthem entitled "Spirit Of The Earth", goes to a minor character (an underused Soophia Foroughi) but is the one moment when the earnestness of the source material and the unbridled joy of musical theatre at its most exhilarating, entirely coalesce. If it sounds like something that might have won Eurovision in a particularly strong year, it's a real ear worm and Foroughi gives it full mellifluous diva power, backed up by a chorus of glorious voices.
Musically more immediately accessible than David Yazbek's Tony-winning score The Band's Visit perhaps, and certainly more authentic than Stephen Schwartz's epic tunes for The Prince Of Egypt, Broken Wings joins a lamentably small selection of musicals that tell Middle Eastern stories on Western stages. Despite being dramatically undernourished as a piece of theatre, the unique combination of bombast and delicacy in the music lingers long in the heart and mind afterwards. I suspect it'll divide people, but that its most staunch supporters will be vociferous.