This show, like the movie it’s based on, is one of those works that you either absolutely adore, or think is the tritest and most overwrought thing you ever laid eyes on. The original film had several good and even beautiful qualities, but it was ultimately far too earnest and melodramatic for its own good. The stage show is still a very sentimental, rather maudlin parable with a predictable plot, but it manages to soften the thuddingly self-important impact of the film. Fans of the movie often complain about the musical’s happy ending, in contrast to the film, which ended in abject tragedy. But while the musical still has to deal with the main character’s incredibly gruesome backstory, the sweetly optimistic finale, along with some touches of humor, helps leaven the overbearing heaviness of the film.
The addition of the show’s wonderful score also helps a great deal, starting with its opening, the deeply haunting “A Ring Around the Moon”, which perfectly introduces us to our main character Percy Talbot. The film, of course, had the advantage of being able to show the amazing scenery that is such a key part of the show’s content, but the stage show uses its score to convey that impression, and “The Colors of Paradise”, “These Wide Woods”, “Wild Bird”, and “Shine” beautifully capture the ecstatic nature-rhapsody the show is built on. The score also softens the film’s antivillain Nahum (here renamed Caleb) with the heartbreaking character song “Digging Stone”. Whereas the movie actually bears an unsettling resemblance to a better-written, better-acted Lifetime movie-of-the-week, the musical seems more like the plot of a Harry Chapin song stretched out into two hours of theater.
And the stage version’s re-imagining of the material certainly seems to have resulted in an improvement in the show’s fortunes: the movie won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival, but it did much less well when released in theaters, with disappointing box office and reviews that ranged from lukewarm to scathing. The musical, by contrast, received rave reviews from nearly all of the New York critics, and has become one of the most widely-staged musicals of the 2000s among regional groups. And if you like these kinds of cinematic atmosphere pieces that take place in their own little world and run more on emotion than logic, this show would be well worth checking out.