Olney -- The musical of "Wuthering Heights" that is receiving its world premiere at Olney Theatre isn't quite misguided enough to be called "Withering Heights," it's more like the precursor of a new middlebrow genre: the Harlequin musical.
On the surface, Emily Bronte's story of overblown passions and hot-blooded revenge might seem ideally suited for the musical stage. But the sense of diminution at Olney begins as soon as we hear the instrumental trio, which consists of a pianist, an electronic keyboard player and a wind player. In other words, no strings -- an especially surprising omission since even the program essay acknowledges that this subject "all but begs for violins."
Next, it becomes apparent that playwright/composer Edward Trach -- who holds a management position with Proctor & Gamble's soap operas -- has not adapted the 19th century novel; he has adapted an adaptation, specifically the 1939 Laurence Olivier-Merle Oberon movie. And the work of director William Wyler turns out to be tougher to adapt than that of Emily Bronte. A successful adaptation needs to comment on or enhance its source in some way; this is even more crucial when the source is a period -- meaning, in this case, dated -- cinematic icon.
For the most part, though, Trach attempts to get away with simply scaling down Wyler's grand-scale vision and tossing in a score of forgettable melodies with greeting-card lyrics. (Sample song titles include, "Oh My Love" and "Another Spring.")
Admittedly, Trach and his vocally accomplished cast, directed by John Going, do bring subtle improvements to the text. Charles Pistone's brooding Heathcliff is motivated less by revenge, and more by his love for Cathy (Donna Kane), which helps ennoble them both. And as the respective spouses of these star-crossed lovers, Judy McLane's Isabella and Stephen F. Schmidt's Edgar display a selflessness that makes them more sympathetic.
There's even a quartet, "Here With You," in which the four simultaneously sing their conflicting feelings, and for a moment it seems as if the show is going to acquire the insightful sensibility it desperately needs. But no. Cathy and Heathcliff remain foolish people who made the wrong choices for the wrong reasons, and Trach does nothing to shed light on their wrong-headedness.
Finally, though it may seem minor, another shortcoming is worth noting. Nelly, the loyal housekeeper, is played by Marni Nixon, who supplied the singing voice of Natalie Wood in "West Side Story," Audrey Hepburn in "My Fair Lady" and Deborah Kerr in "The King and I." At Olney, she only gets to sing a few paltry bars. It's a wasted opportunity that, regrettably, is an appropriate metaphor for the show.
When: Tuesdays to Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Through Oct. 11.
Where: Olney Theatre, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road (Route 108), Olney.
Call: (301) 924-3400.