Book and lyrics: Richard Hough
Music: Ben Morales Frost
Director: Charlotte Westenra
A lot of mileage has been gained from Johan Wolfgang von Goethe’s 1797 short poem The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. It inspired a 2010 Disney live action film, but, perhaps more memorably, it provided a segment in the same studio’s 1940 animated film Fantasia, with the title character being played by Mickey Mouse. Sadly, little of the jollity of that 80-year-old classic survives in this new musical version, which turns the thin story into a thin allegory about climate change.
Charlotte Westenra’s production of the show was due to open at London’s Southwark Playhouse in January 2021 and this is a recording thereof, shot in the theatre, but never yet seen by a paying and live audience. Inevitably, magic effects which are designed for theatre, using choreography, puppetry and lighting, work less well on film, but, generally, the sound and visual quality are good.
In this version, the apprentice is Eva, a 16-year-old sort of “Harriet Potter” who aspires to go to university to read Magic. She has inherited her raw talents from her father Johan, with whom she has a difficult relationship. The setting is a small town which has the Northern Lights in sight and Johan is caught up in a struggle to prevent a local refinery from draining energy from “Aurora” and thereby destroying it.
Mary Moore as the rebellious teenager and David Thaxton as her troubled dad are both convincing and they sing their roles splendidly. Marc Pickering gives Fabian, the refinery owner, the air of a pantomime villain, foppish and pampered by his nanny (Vicki Lee Taylor) and his domineering mother (Dawn Hope). A science student from the south, Erik (Yazdan Qafouri) turns up to be cured of something similar to Covid-19 by Johan’s magic and stays on to provide a love interest for Eva.
Richard Hough’s book suffers from the fundamental conflict of wallowing in fantasy while, at the same time, striving to take itself seriously. We want this show to be a magical adventure, but too often when it comes close to achieving that goal, it allows itself to be dragged down to the level of miserable melodrama. Excessive sub-plotting is another handicap, undermining the essential simplicity of the original story.
Hough’s lyrics propel the narrative effectively and there is little to displease in Ben Morales Frost’s music, but neither is there much that is original nor memorable. When Moore belts out Brand New Me to open the second act, it feels as if it is intended to be a showstopper (difficult to judge without an audience), but it is a bland song that could have been dropped into almost any Disney animated film over the last 40 years.
Good individual efforts bring several bright moments to Westenra’s production but taken as a whole and seen on film, the show does not hold together well and it casts few spells.
Available here until 14 March 2021