‘Sleepless’ Revives London’s Pandemic Musical Scene, if Only Just

‘Sleepless’ Revives London’s Pandemic Musical Scene, if Only Just

LONDON — Well, it’s a start.

Sleepless: A Musical Romance,” which opened on Tuesday at the Troubadour Wembley Park Theater, is more noteworthy for what it represents than for the show itself: London’s first fully staged indoor musical since the coronavirus pandemic brought live performances to a halt back in March.

Several musical revivals have since been performed in concert at alfresco locations around the city. The rare plays on offer have had either casts of one or, as with the sound installation “Blindness” at the Donmar, no live actors at all. But like it or not — and “Sleepless” is fairly anodyne — the show on view through Sept. 27 exists on a scale that seemed unimaginable even a month or two ago.

And for that at least, three cheers.

It helps that the musical has as its source “Sleepless in Seattle,” the wildly successful 1993 screen comedy starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan that is unusual for keeping its romantically inclined leads apart until the very end. (This “Sleepless,” by the way, is not connected to a separate 2013 stage musical that had its premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse in California.)

The result builds into the plot a geographical separation that chimes with our socially distanced age: The show, like the film, spends two hours bringing the widowed Sam (Jay McGuiness) and the excitable Annie (Kimberley Walsh) together atop the Empire State Building on Valentine’s Day, at which point they don’t do much more than clasp hands as Morgan Large’s attractive two-tiered turntable set whooshes them from view.

Safety precautions are in place. The cast and crew are tested daily for the coronavirus, while audiences are required to wear masks, have their temperatures checked upon arrival and follow a one-way system through a building that has hand sanitizer in evidence at every turn. The theater itself, which is toward the outer reaches of northwestern London and well away from the still-shuttered West End, is putting less than one-third of its 1,300 seats on sale for each performance — a revenue-limiting measure by producers who clearly decided that some paying public was better than no public at all.

The determination of all involved makes it especially disappointing that the director Morgan Young’s production isn’t more exciting, however likable its leads are. (Young and his two English stars collaborated this time last year on the West End premiere of the 1996 Broadway musical “Big,” another screen-to-stage transfer of a Tom Hanks film.)

It’s bracing to find a musical showcasing a new British composing team in Robert Scott and Brendan Cull amid a climate still defined this side of the Atlantic by Andrew Lloyd Webber, whose new musical, “Cinderella,” is among the many autumn openings that have been postponed. But too much of the score has a samey, easy-listening quality, with one song blurring into the next.

Annie’s numbers exist largely to tell us that she’s “out of my mind” or “out of my head,” as you might be, too, if you developed a sudden obsession with a man on the other side of the United States based only on a chance hearing one holiday season on the radio. As is true of the film, you feel for the decent if dull Walter (Daniel Casey), Annie’s partner, who is blindsided by her gathering infatuation with a voice she needs to see made flesh.

The depressive Seattle architect Sam, in turn, is upstaged in this telling by his matchmaking son, Jonah, the 10-year-old here played by a young vocal dynamo, Jobe Hart, another alumnus of the musical “Big.” (Hart shares the role of Jonah with three other boys, in accordance with union requirements.)

Indeed, the closest “Sleepless” comes to a showstopper is a second-act duet, “Now or Never,” for Hart and the musical theater veteran Cory English as Sam’s ebullient friend, Rob. The song comes with its own reprise: “Shall we do it again, just from the key change?” And they do.

Michael Burdette’s book takes its lead from Nora Ephron’s Oscar-nominated screenplay, at times running certain references into the ground. It’s fine to present Annie, a reporter for The Baltimore Sun, as a film buff with an abiding interest in the Cary Grant-Deborah Kerr film “An Affair to Remember,” to which Ephron’s film owes a debt. But it’s unclear why Annie really needs to sing of her love for Grant — just as it’s hard to believe that so avid a film buff would debate the pronunciation of Kerr’s last name. Then again, Annie is the sort who thinks that “even the word exotic sounds exotic,” so there’s no telling where her conversations may lead.

Both known for their work with pop groups, McGuiness and Walsh prove amiable team leaders in a show that can’t help but feel like an also-ran. You leave “Sleepless” pleased that it happened, and restless for more and better theater to come.

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