Up there with The Deer Hunter and The Champ, Love Story came from a decade of schmaltzy tearjerkers that kept tissue manufacturers in healthy profits. Originally a screenplay treatment that Paramount commissioned into a novel to boost interest in the motion picture, Erich Segal’s plot follows the relationship of two young students; Oliver Barrett IV, a wealthy heir at Harvard and Jenny Cavilleri, a music major at Radcliffe College and daughter of a Rhode Island baker. Coming from very different origins provides fertile ground for parental conflict. Whilst Jenny’s father – proud at everything his daughter has done – takes the news of a non-church wedding on the chin; Oliver Barrett III is not so thrilled by his son’s spousal choice and disowns him. For a generation of us that grew up in the 70s, the punch line to Love Story was as secret as knowing the Titanic didn’t quite make it to New York; but as the cinematic release of Love Story was 40 years ago it’s probably prudent not to give away the ending.
The musical version of Love Story premiered at the Chichester Festival Theatre in 2010, quickly transferring to the Duchess Theatre in the same year. It’s impossible not to draw comparisons with the movie since they share so much of the same scenes and word-for-word dialog. Herein then lies the minefield that director Joseph C Walsh must tiptoe through; how do you stage such cinematographic material plus add songs and squeeze the whole thing into 90 minutes? It’s a challenge that would thwart many, plus there’s the added tricky task of not letting the whole thing get over sentimental. Walsh, I can attest, does an admirable job. The whole getting-to-know you first 20 minutes or so whips along at quite a pace, hardly giving you time to get to know these characters before we’re at their wedding and they are drunkenly exchanging vows (a nice touch by Walsh to temper the melodrama). There are inevitable cuts to the original screenplay, and we deal with the passage of time of married life via a quite brilliant musical number, ‘Pasta’, which injects a comic element into an otherwise tragic tale. Uh-oh, here comes that iceberg.
Musically we’re in William Finn territory here, with bright catchy tunes that could have easily fallen off the March of the Falsettos songbook. There’s also a nod to the original and iconic Love Story theme, ‘Where Do I Begin’, but cleverly staged with entirely new melody and lyrics sung over it.
Although the intimate stage at the Brockley Jack Studio is stuffed with actors, this piece is really only about Oliver (Jonny Muir) and Jenny (Caroline Keating). Keating is a stunning find for this role. Prodigiously talented as an actor, singer and musician she handles Jenny fantastically well, giving believable depth to the bright young lady who had to fight from humble beginnings to get into a good college. Muir has the jawline and good looks to handle the male lead, plus an outstanding vocal ability that caught me quite by surprise. His interpretation of Oliver Barrett IV was a little angry for me though, losing some of the subtly in the father-son relationship that Ryan O’Neal managed to convey in the movie. Nevertheless, I suspect the newly graduated Mr Muir has a very bright future in this profession.