Stressing accents might seem like a silly or trivial thing, but when you are dealing with a musical CD that has quite a bit of dialogue, the accents do matter. And I have to say that they may be the most contrived southern accents I have ever heard. They give the impression of someone deliberately trying to do a bad southern accent. And the crime of it all is that the story does not rely upon the accents and setting to work. I understand we are supposed to be taken to 1950's Louisiana, but it would have worked for me whatever the landscape and year. Or if a case is made why it must be this era and locale, then I could have utilized my imagination. I am sure their natural accents would have been much more appealing to the ear (who doesn't enjoy a fine British accent?). All that being said, however, this musical is a tremendous accomplishment and well worth your investment.
The highlights of this play are the music and the vocal performances, particularly of the two leads. The story is actually rather weak in my opinion. In fairness, I have not seen the production so I am judging solely on the merits of the CD. Is the stranger the Christ or a murderous convict? Are the children naïve or are the adults jaded? Not only do I not know, but I do not much care. When listening to the music, you can actually disassociate it from the particular story being told and relate it to your own life or universal human experience. The best songs are expositions on the human experience rather than linked inextricably to the setting at hand. And the beautiful music, the thoughtful lyrics, and the wonderful performances make the experience powerfully moving.
"The Man" is played by Marcus Lovett. Those who have seen Lloyd Webber's birthday celebration at Royal Albert Hall will recognize him as the performer who played Judas in Superstar and introduced Sunset Boulevard. His voice is fantastic. His higher tenor register is so smooth. Beyond his vocal performance, he brings tremendous passion and emotion to the part. You feel his tortured past and his cynicism. His musings on the human condition in "Unsettled Scores" and "If Only" are truly powerful.
"Swallow" is played by Lottie Mayor. She sang the second version of this play's title song in the Royal Albert Hall Celebration mentioned above. Her voice is crystalline, pristine. It is simply beautiful. Whether she is singing a simple melody as in "Home by Now" or "If Only" or singing back-up harmony in "A Kiss is a Terrible Thing to Waste", her voice is exquisite.
Of all of Lloyd Webber's works, this one reminds me the most of Phantom, complete with recurring thematic elements and even a frenzied mob forming to catch the phantom, I mean, the convict. The story is not as good, but musically it compares very favorably. There are rousing gospel numbers ("Low", "The Vaults of Heaven"), crescendoing rock opera pieces ("A Kiss is a Terrible Thing to Waste", "Tire Tracks and Broken Hearts"), and simple beautiful melodies ("No Matter What", "It Just Doesn't Get Any Better Than This" - has there ever been a more beautiful 40 seconds?). It is unfortunate this work has not received the attention or accolades of the former. It is truly deserving.