The woman in the white double-breasted coat with a fringe in Stalls Row E distracted me and many in the audience behind her by using her iPhone throughout in first 40 minutes of the show. She had arrived late. She was not there for the start of the second half, but blundered in after 15 minutes, to crawl along her row and try to talk to someone on the other side of 2 audience members who had moved forward in her absence. Then she fell off her seat during the finale. The fact that she appeared to be part of the production makes it even more annoying, two rows in front of a bank of reviewers.
Unfortunately, it was very easy to be distracted from this production. Broken Wings is a semi-staged production from Nadim Naaman, who wrote the book and also provides music and lyrics with Dana Al Fardan. The music is lovely, the orchestra excellent and the performances are generally good, but the book taken from the novel by Kahlil Gibran is poor. What may be a beautiful, poetic work on the page does not succeed on the stage. It is fine to have another set of star-crossed lovers, but they need some threat to cause us to care. They bring in the older man, this time to desire her for his nephew. I was reminded of Judge Turpin in Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd but Bishop Bulos gets no song. The nephew Mansour gets no song. We needed an explicit threat to the youngsters, not Farris’ simple declaration that his money meant he could not fight the church. There is great potential for a quintet with the older men arguing over Selma’s fate while the younger ones fight for her love and she tries to satisfy them all. There were several scenes which called for a song but had none, while others did not yet had one. The best song in the show “Spirit of the Earth” goes to Mother – a very underwritten character.
The split time frame causes more problems than it solves. In a long opening preamble, Old Gibran tells us we need “context” and proceeds to tell us most of the story, including that his love Shelma dies early. Why bother with another 2 hours of the show? As we get into the second half, Mansour suddenly laments his lack of a son, having been an uncaring womaniser up till then. At that point I realised – pregnancy, death – unhappy ending - done. Unlike Kim in Miss Saigon, this is no tragedy but a very sad death after childbirth.
Gibran and Selma wish reconcile their love for one another, whilst navigating the rules, traditions and expectations that their society lays before them but there is little passion. We needed action to dramatise the story; too much here is gentle conversation and reporting – why have older Gibran tell us that the young lovers met in the temple many times and she introduced him to many challenging, feminist ideas? Why don’t we hear them have those debates? Another good song opportunity missed.
Bronagh Lagan directs and makes the most of the book – it comes alive in the wedding scene, but for too short a time. Some fun dance moves show talents not fully utilised. Orchestrations by Joe Davison are seductive, having the orchestra on stage at least gives us a more interesting picture, but the fact that I often watched them rather than the actors shows the lack of visual drama. The villains need to be developed more fully so we have a contrast to the liberal Farris and the young lovers.
The singing is excellent throughout but the acting is uneven. Some is frenetic and bordering on pantomime. Described as the ‘Arab Shakespeare’, Kahlil Gibran is one of the world’s best-selling poets of all-time. This show has potential but needs more drama and less poetry to make it a satisfying piece of musical theatre.