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Review: Lyric Stage’s ‘The Night of the Hunter’

by Jerome Weeks 5 Nov 2010 5:44 AM

Lyric Stage has gained acclaim for reviving classic Broadway musicals with full orchestras — returning the shows to their lush, original sound. But the Irving theater company also bravely develops new musicals. In his review, Jerome Weeks says Lyric Stage’s current show could use some more development. Or perhaps less.


night editEnter the Hunter: Davis Gaines as the Preacher in Lyric Stage’s The Night of the Hunter

Lyric Stage has gained acclaim for reviving classic Broadway musicals with full orchestras — returning the shows to their lush, original sound. But the Irving theater company also bravely develops new musicals. In his review, KERA’s Jerome Weeks says Lyric Stage’s current show could use some more development — or less.

  • Dallas Morning Newsprofile of actor Davis Gaines
  • Theater Jones’ profile of Lyric Stage producer Steven Jones
  • KERA radio review:

  • Expanded online review:

Lyric Stage’s The Night of the Hunter is easy enough to love or hate. It’s harder to realize the possibilities here that were lost.

The Night of the Hunter, of course, is the iconic, black-and-white movie with Robert Mitchum playing the murderous preacher who has LOVE and HATE tattooed across his fingers. In prison, the preacher learned about money from a bank robbery, money that was left hidden with a widow and her two children. And now he’ll kill anyone who gets in his way.

And now Lyric Stage has opened the first, full-scale, musical adaptation of Hunter, complete with a 28-piece orchestra. The musical has previously been given workshop stagings in New York and Chicago. It was even released as a 1998 concept album. From that recording, this is the moment when the Preacher introduces the knuckles on his left hand.

Opening of “Love and Hate”:

That moment with its raucous horns and percussive melody has some of the chilling power this musical could use more of. The 1955 film actually flopped with critics and audiences. It was only later that the achievements of Mitchum, screenwriter/novelist/critic James Agee, director Charles Laughton and cinematographer Stanley Cortez were fully appreciated. Together, they created something strange and rare and uniquely American: a Southern gothic film noir. Its bold, German-Expressionist look is both highly stylized and downhome-simple, lovely yet spooky. It took advantage of Mitchum’s hulking menace, giving him his most terrifying role before Cape Fear.

Yes, it’s unfair to beat a stage adaptation with a film version. They do different things. But the screen version of The Night of the Hunter has two chilling moments that are worth recalling. The first comes early on when the preacher attends a burlesque show and begins to seethe at the stripper and her hooting audience. He grabs his switchblade but then looks up and grimly concedes: “Can’t kill the whole world, Lord.”

It’s the depth of the Preacher’s rage that is surprising. Critics often describe the Preacher as greedy, and to a degree, he is. But as we learn, he’s actually a serial wife killer, a kind of Bluebeard. In that sense, he’s a ‘motiveless malignancy.’ Or just too twisted to be reduced to a single purpose.

The second moment comes when the Preacher tries to catch the children before they escape downriver in a skiff. He stumbles in the shoreline mud, and a wet, bedraggled Mitchum looks at them as they float away. He opens his mouth wide — and howls like a whipped dog. He’s reduced to a wordless animal.

Nothing in Lyric Stage’s show approaches these moments of dread — yet both are fairly simple. They wouldn’t take much. In fact, for their adaptation, bookwriter/lyricist Stephen Cole and the late composer Claibe Richardson went back to Davis Grubb‘s original novel and adapted several scenes that are not in the film version — notably a storm that imperils picnickers on the river. And they’ve wisely shortened the rather lengthy, static ending with the good woman who takes in the children.

Wisest of all, they’ve kept — and heightened — the religious background. That’s the musical heart of this material. Composer Richardson has supplied songs that echo classic old hymns so well, one swears they are classic old hymns. This is “The River Jesus” from the album.

Much of the rest of the music, though, is surprisingly flavorless. A bestseller in 1953, Grubb’s novel is based on the 1932 case of wife-murderer Harry Powers in West Virginia. That happened to be where Grubb grew up — along the Ohio River, during the Depression. The rich, backwoods possibilities — for blues and country music and folk ballads — are practically lying on the ground. But outside of the occasional twang in a singer’s voice, they’re overlooked. Too often what we get is a generic Broadway sound, pretty at times but nothing distinctive.

It’s a lost opportunity in another sense: There are some terrific singers in Lyric’s production. Broadway veteran Davis Gaines (above, with Julie Johnson) portrays the Preacher. Gaines has played the title role in The Phantom of the Opera forever, yet he’s not a particularly scary actor. He lacks the remorseless menace this murderer needs. But Gaines’ singing has all the range and power one could wish for. In contrast, Julie Johnson is a little formidable for the beaten-down widow who becomes the Preacher’s hapless victim. But she does well with a touching, wedding-night number, “Make Him Be Good.”

night of the hunter lyrics stage 2Escaping the hunter: Marlhy Murphy and Jack Vangorden on the river

Cheryl Denson directed the Lyric Stage production, and it’s an ambitious, complex undertaking – it even includes the children escaping downriver in that skiff. And sometimes — as in the pictures shown here — Scott Osborne’s set and especially Julie Moroney’s lighting can make for lovely, striking stage images.

But it all seems to have been too ambitious. Friday’s preview performance was seriously plagued by technical foul-ups. It’s ironic: What this Hunter could actually use is more simplicity. Something stark and strong to suit its setting and characters.

Hunter was never really a nuanced psychological study — despite Cole and Richardson’s attempts to make it such. Recall the Preacher’s famous parable about LOVE and HATE and his two hands grappling with each other: It’s not a psychological dilemma he’s talking about. It’s a moral battle. And all the characters themselves are set out as moral types more than full human beings (the foolish woman, the good mother, the bad father).

What Grubb offered wasn’t deep insight into the Preacher’s misanthropy. His tale was a dark, gothic fable about good faith vs. bad faith. The Night of the Hunter created one of America’s boldest portraits of the preacher-as-predator, of religion as a mask for evil. But it balanced that with a resolute granny, a granny with a shotgun and a reconstituted Christian family protecting the children. And this moral battle is set amid events that seem to come straight out of fairy tales or Biblical legends.  A son loses his father and gains a monster wearing a minister’s collar, children escape downriver like Moses in the bullrushes.

A story like that, with characters like that, could move and cut like Sweeney Todd — but without the butchershop humor. Or it could play like Elmer Gantry — with a switchblade.