Edward Scissorhands, the maladjusted creation of Tim Burton's imagination, has stepped off the silver screen and onto the musical stage, thanks to Matthew Bourne's ballet rendering, currently on view at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. The result is impressive if not altogether satisfying, but at the very least one must say that the stage version stands on its own as a unique entity, not merely a slavish rendition of the 1990 film.
The story follows the same general pattern established by the film, but many of the details have been altered. For example, the stage version begins with a boy playing with scissors who is killed by lightening. Consequently, you soon stop wondering whether and how every scene from the film will be transposed, and instead watch this story for what it is.
Unfortunately, as much as has been captured, so has much been lost. Bourne's choreography captures American suburbia (circa 1950s) in broad colorful strokes, but the musical medium lends a god's eye view to the setting (especially if you're in the balcony seats at the Ahmanson). You're not seeing the "normal" world through Edward's eyes - and thus seeing the familiar elements as new and amazing, the way they appear to him. You're simply seeing a bunch of small town folk portrayed, to some extent, as local yokels, without the heart and warmth that permeated the characters of the film (thanks in large part to Diane Weists' sympathetic performance).
Transforming EDWARD SCISSORHANDS into a wordless musical (you'll be hard pressed to find it described as a "ballet" in any of the press release, perhaps for fear of scaring off curious film fans) may not have been as agood an idea as it at first seemed. Edward is mostly a mute character, so the transition should be easy, but when the rest of the cast is mute as well, he no longer seems unique.
Whatever the drawbacks of the stage, Edward cuts a striking figure, his bladed fingers dancing in the air every bit as much as his feet dance on the stage. The essential story - of an outsider who can never fit in, whose love can never be fully realized - remains intact, touching the heart strings to magic effect.
The score incorporates familiar themes from Danny Elfman's movie music, and enhances them with several original tunes, some with a pop-rock feel, others with full-blown symphonic orchestrations. All of the music was rendered in clear vibrant tones by the orchestra at the Ahmanson, but in the end the score itself falls short. EDWARD SCISSORHANDS is a fairy tale, a fantasy in which the characters are broad beyond belief. Therefore, the music cannot simply be good enough; it needs to soar like a full-blown ballet, sweeping with the grandeur and pathos of SWAN LAKE, not simply delivering a few catchy melodies while relying on Elfman's love theme to supply all the warmth.
As for the story, in the manner of stage musicals, it occasinally takes back seat to the set pieces. Instead of stopping the narrative at regular intervals to sing a song, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS serves up ensemble dance routines at regular intervals (life in town, a Christmas party) that exist largely for their own sake, giving the dancers a chance to strut their stuff, without enriching the story or revealing the characters to us.
When the show sticks to the central story (Edward's doomed love for Kim), it can be amazingly effective, for example during a fantasy interlude when Edward imagines himself with normal hands, at last able to touch Kim as a normal man. And the ending, with the town's people pursuing Edward back to his castle on the hill like a mob from an old FRANKENSTEIN film, works as a dance piece and as a piece of drama, ending the story on a touching note of tragedy.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about the wordless musical is the amazing array of effects used to tell the story in a way that frees the narrative from the usual confines of the stage. Semi-transparent screens reflect light patterns suggesting snow or clouds. Shifts in lighting hide scene changes that move us seamlessly from one setting to another. A character disappears almost before our eyes, as if shuffling off this mortal coil, only to re-appear as a silhouette against the darkening sky, like the ghost of a memory for the girl - now an old lady - who recalls her lost love for him.
Best of all, the production features a truly amazing curtain call, which may be the highlight of the show. After the rest of the cast has taken their bows, Edward emerges - very much in character - edging toward the front of the stage as if confused by the adulation he is receiving from the applauding audience. He raises his arm, scissorhands spread wide, and from the rafters of the theatre, snow rains down on the audience, recalling the snow that spews from the ice sculpture angel he fashons earlier in the evening. It's a beautiful, poetic moment that makes the whole evening worthwhile, eclipsing (even if only momentarily) memories of the film and replacing them with the magic of a special moment that can be achieved only live.
The acoustics and the presentation at the Ahmanson are excellent. Although a fairly large theatre, even the most distant seat provide an excellent view of the stage. With the emphasis on ensemble dancing, the musical numbers are more than big enough to fill the theatre, eclipsing the need to see the actor's faces up close.
Perhaps surprisingly, the audience seems to be a typical theatre crowd. One might have expected more Tim Burton fans to show up, decked out in fashions borrowed from THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, but only a handful elegant black sable dresses suggested even a hint of the Gothic style adopted Burton's fans when they head out for a night on the town to see his latest film open.
EDWARD SCISSORHANDS runs from through December 31. The website for the U.S. tour is here. The website for the original U.K. production is here. You can get information and purchase tickets for the Los Angeles performances here.
RELATED ARTICLES: Read a question-and-answer session with choreographer Matthew Bourne and screenwriter Caroline Thompson here.