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Review Round-up: Mixed Emotions at Love Story

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The foyer of Chichester\'s Minerva Theatre is currently selling branded tissues by the box-load. The reason? A new musical adapatation of Love Story, inspired by Erich Segal\'s best-selling weepie novel (and subsequent 1970 film version) about a happy marriage shattered by the onset of leukaemia.

Featuring music by Howard Goodall (The Hired Man, Days of Hope, Two Cities), a book by Stephen Clark (The Far Pavilions) and lyrics by Clark and Goodall, the production stars Emma Williams (Jenny) and Michael Xavier (Oliver), and is directed by Birmingham Rep artistic director Rachel Kavanaugh, who helmed The Music Man at Chichester in 2008.

  • Maxwell Cooter on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) – “The story of Oliver, a rich Harvard graduate, falling in love with Jenny, an Italian-American girl from the wrong side of the tracks with whom he lives a happy married life until she\'s stricken with leukaemia, is replete with cliché... Michael Xavier as Oliver brings just the right touch of haughtiness and naivete to the character. Emma Williams isn’t quite as believable as Jenny - she sounds a bit too, well, nice, and struggles to bring the right touch of stringency to the role - but she sings beautifully… Howard Goodall\'s score, well played by a string sextet and piano, is a bit weak on standout tunes, although the opening and closing number, \'What Can You Say?\' has a haunting melody… Rachel Kavanaugh\'s production is as slick as it can be… At a time when the word \'musical\' seems synonymous with a montage of rock songs held together by a paper-thin plot, this clever chamber piece deserves a wider hearing.”
  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (two stars) – “In many respects the stage show is an improvement on the film. That fine composer Howard Goodall has come up with some strong original melodies to replace the movie’s score of souped-up Bach, Mozart and Handel, and the glutinous main theme, which becomes such a recurring irritant in the movie, is played only once, by our heroine, during a college recital… There are real pleasures in the show. The band, visible on stage throughout and resembling a chamber music string septet led by the MD on piano, get the most out of Goodall’s lushly romantic score and the singing is strong. The acting is also better than it was in the movie. Emma Williams brings a sharp wit to Jenny, and sudden moments of touching vulnerability. Michael Xavier is both hunkier and more charming than O’Neal in the film, and Peter Polycarpou is genuinely moving as Jenny’s grieving Dad…If you like the original Love Story, you’ll probably love this. If you loathe it, like me, you will just deplore the waste of so much genuine talent.”
  • Libby Purves in The Times (three stars) – “In the foyer they are selling Love Story themed tissues. Smart move. The late Erich Segal, who hit the jackpot with his first novel and the iconic 1970 film, jerked a mean tear… It’s a modest parlour piece, set in a clean crescent of whiteness against a gentle string and piano ensemble. Each elegantly swift scene-shift has a musical interlude, and the action moves on at a fair clip - two hours with no interval to break the mood. Our modern Benedick and Beatrice meet, bicker, roll joyfully about, struggle domestically, and with a heartbreaking plea for \'a little more Now\', finally part… It’s not perfect, yet. It feels workshoppy at times, and some of the musical themes are repeated a bit too often (though the brief appearance of the film tune is brilliantly done). But let’s not kill an honest puppy: it’s a lovely little show.”
  • Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail (five stars) - “Anyone in need of a really good, eyeball-washing blub should get down to Chichester where Howard Goodall has set to music Erich Segal’s 1969 American weepie Love Story … The production lasts just 110 minutes, without interval. Going without a half-time break saves the spell being broken … Mr Xavier is tall, handsome, perhaps a little similar in looks to Senator John Kerry, onetime candidate for the US presidency. He and Miss Williams have clear, unaffected voices and she is even prettier than him … Mr Goodall’s melody lodges itself firmly in the memory. It is touching without being sickly sweet, complex yet cute enough to have a strum of guitar amid the violins … I would be amazed if this Love Story didn’t romp into London’s West End. It is a delightful, five-star, boutique musical, judiciously soupy, artistically innovative. And sure to make you cry cupfuls.”
  • Fiona Mountford in the Evening Standard (four stars) – “One of my many issues with the film is the way it belts through its account of Harvard rich boy lawyer Oliver and Radcliffe poor girl pianist Jenny without pausing to draw breath. The genius of turning this into a musical is that the songs offer welcome moments of interiority in the hectic narrative onslaught, giving crucial emotional heft and access into the hearts and minds of the lovestruck duo… And it’s not just any songs we’re talking about, but plangent, beautifully crafted and sung pieces. The haunting opening number What Can You Say? deserves to become a classic… It’s incredibly deftly staged by Rachel Kavanaugh, who guides us through the many locations with ease. All this would mean nothing, though, if Emma Williams and Michael Xavier weren’t as poignant, tuneful and, vitally, smitten, as they are… The show finished to a chorus of heavy sniffles superseded by hearty applause, which I take to mean that a West End transfer should be a given.”
  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (two stars) - \"This 110-minute chamber musical, with a score by Howard Goodall and book and lyrics by Stephen Clark, based on the Erich Segal story is so decorously tasteful that by the end, there wasn\'t a damp eye in the house ... It could be moving if it weren\'t for the air of cold calculation, emanating from Segal\'s original, that surrounds the enterprise: it seeks a deep emotional response to people we hardly know. Starting with Jenny\'s death, Clark\'s lyrics ask, \'What can you say about a girl who made you proud to be her friend?\' Since Jenny doesn\'t appear to have any friends, the question seems redundant. And Oliver is worse than a cipher: he seems a jerk ... This manipulative tosh is admittedly staged with sophistication by Rachel Kavanaugh ... even if the musical is marginally better than the movie, that\'s a bit like saying the thumbscrew is preferable to the rack.\"

    - Andrea Kleopa & Theo Bosanquet

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