Review by Daz Gale
There are certain shows musical theatre fans have been dying to see for themselves for years and one of them can finally be ticked off as Death Note makes its debut in a show with no shortage of firsts. The European premiere of this show is also the English language premiere. While the original story has legions of fans and the musical adaptation has been a sensation in Japan, would this new iteration be able to recapture that magic or would it die a death on stage?
Based on the best-selling Japanese manga series by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, the musical adaptation of Death Note premiered in Tokyo in 2015 with a Korean production following a year later. It tells the story of high school student Light Yagami whose quest for justice against criminals steps up a gear when he comes across a notebook that allows him to kill anybody just by writing their name down. As his intentions become questionable, a search begins to track down the mystery serial killer, with plenty of twists along the way.
I have to be honest and say I wasn’t overly familiar with the source material before seeing this concert. Seeing the overwhelming reaction by die-hard fans of the show and story when the concert announcement was first made and the excitement in the atmosphere of the evening (with plenty of audience members dressing up as characters from the show) was hard not to buy into. Whether you knew the story intimately or were a complete novice to it, like me, there really was something for everybody to enjoy here – with practically the entire audience unanimous in their astonishment by the close of the show.
This new production was billed as a concert. It should come as no surprise that it is by some of the same people who brought Bonnie & Clyde to London first as a concert, as this too features far more staging than you might expect from the title. The sprawling set design full of countless props and gorgeous attention to detail suggested we might be in for something a bit different than expected, and they didn’t let us down in that respect. Justin Williams set design was, rather fittingly, to die for. Featuring an ambitious design full of scale and meticulous detail, it resulted in an audience effortlessly being transported into a world many were familiar with.
Also awe-inspiring were the costume design from Kimie Nakano An initial grey and suited ensemble gave way to the wholly satisfying reveal of Ryuk (Adam Pascal) and Rem (Aimie Atkinson). Audiences of all aged were transported to a childlike state of wonder as iconic characters were beautifully realised on stage in an authentic and careful way that managed to look ominous and not at all tacky. The high quality design elements were matched by truly exquisite lighting design from Ben Cracknell. Big, bold and beautiful, they revealed some great effects making the stage (and entire theatre) burst with colour while plunging it into atmospheric darkness at other times.
All of this wouldn’t have been possible without the expert direction of the ever reliable Nick Winston. Having proven himself to be a master at his craft in recent productions, he has struck gold once again with an incredible eye for how best to translate this story to the stage and a British audience and an attention of detail that created a wholly pleasing watch. Nick’s choreography was equally a delight, particularly in one memorable sequence involving Light (Joaquin Pedro Valdes), L (Dean John Wilson) and a game of tennis. This moment also highlighted the quality of the sound design by Ben Harrison with some great touches throughout. Unfortunately, the show fell victim to first night problems with some sound issues and a number of missed cues, but this didn’t detract from the clearly high standard of the design which, at its best, reverberated in a gorgeous manner.
How do you take such a well-loved and iconic story that is so vast in scale (more than 100 chapters) and condense it into two hours of stage time? Luckily, Ivan Menchell was on hand to pen the book for this stage adaptation, flawlessly weaving strands of the existing narrative while making the necessary tweaks to bring the story to life in a cohesive way. This created a satisfying story full of twists which went by quickly – perhaps even too quickly. I would have been more than happy to have had an extra hour of the story play out, but that is surely a testament to the genius of the writing and adaptation.
Adding musical elements to a story like Death Note comes at a risk. You don’t want to completely murder the story. This is no problem for the legendary Frank Wildhorn and Jack Murphy whose music and lyrics provide a glorious soundtrack which had me hooked from the opening number. Kicking off with a number as big as ‘Where Is The Justice’ is a bold choice but sets the tone perfectly in a number that would have been a fitting act closer in any other show. From there, the quality doesn’t dip at all with beautiful harmonies adding layers to complex yet fully accessible melodies all fantastically realised by Jason Howland's arrangements and orchestrations, Katy Richardsons musical supervision and Chris Ma's musical direction. Feeling instantly familiar yet refreshingly new, this is a show full of musical highlights that left me longing for a London cast recording.
The creative elements play a huge part to what makes Death Note such a special production. However, there is one other element at play and that is the cast – and what a cast they have assembled for this series of concerts. A Broadway legend and West End royalty mix with young and emerging talent to create what may well be one of the strongest casts the legendary London Palladium stage has ever seen. Bear with me as there is a lot to unpack with them…
I have long been an admirer of Joaquin Pedro Valdes and hoped a show would come along that would be the right vehicle for his remarkable talent. Death Note more than does him justice, showing the world what a formidable star he truly is. Leading the production as Light, he shows his versatility as an actor in a character that evolves as the show progresses in a constantly enigmatic portrayal. Then there is the small matter of his vocals… or not so small as they were. With a voice that truly is a gift from the Gods, he showcases his range and depth phenomenally, truly shining on numbers including ‘Where Is The Justice’ and ‘Hurricane’.
Dean John Wilson is an absolute standout as the mysterious L. Though his first appearance in the show is relatively late, he makes the most of it with an increased stage presence as he perfectly encapsulates all of L’s weird and wonderful characteristics. He may well have ruined sitting on a chair normally for me from now on (if you know, you know). As well as getting a chance to show his quirkier side in a big character performance, he also goes toe to toe with Joaquin’s Light for some showstopping duets in act two, the pair blowing everyone away with their combined talents in what can only be described as a vocal deathmatch.
No stranger to Frank Wildhorn musicals, Frances Mayli McCann gets to take on a different kind of character as pop superstar Misa. Initially appearing in a commanding performance that had me longing for Frances to headline her own pop concerts, her storyline gradually grew in the shows second act, allowing her the chance to shine once again. Always an incredible talent, Frances got one of the vocal highlights of the evening with a stunning performance of ‘Borrowed Time’. Death Note has no shortage of remarkable talent filling every inch of the stage with smaller characters and ensemble each getting moments to wow either collectively or individually. They include Rachel Clare Chan as Sayu, Christian Rey Marbella as Soichiro and a constantly hard-working ensemble, blessing our eyes and ears with theatrical brilliance.
The lead cast are completed by two Shinigami (Gods of death), Ryuk and Rem. West End audiences get a rare chance to see Broadway star Adam Pascal on these shores as he perfectly portrays Ryuk. A big performance of a big character and one demands all eyes are on him whenever he is near, Adam’s Ryuk is fascinating to watch, never quite veering towards panto territory despite the relative absurdity of the costume and instead being an ever-threatening and sinister presence… with no shortage of humorous moments. Rem is played by the wonderful Aimie Atkinson who provides the perfect light to Ryuk’s dark in a quiet but commanding performance, getting another one of the musical highlights of the evening with her stunning rendition of ‘When Love Comes’.
You may gather from this review that there is something quite special about Death Note, with this production further cementing the shows legacy to begin a new chapter which is sure to grow into an unstoppable life of its own. This first iteration of Death Note in London was so successful, selling out its initial concerts instantly, a second run was added at the Lyric Theatre next month. I am pleased to say this is one case where the demand and the hype and more than lived up to as this production truly is remarkable.
While there were one or two teething problems on the first night, the sheer quality and ambition of this staging leaves me in no doubt that it will go on to have a further life in the West End, just as Bonnie & Clyde did. With its outstanding production value and world class performances from an unbeatable cast, this is quite possibly as good as it gets creating one of the most exhilarating shows of the year. Safe to say this killer show ironically gave me life, it really is dead good - no notes.
Death Note In Concert plays at the Lyric Theatre from 7th – 11th September. Tickets from www.deathnotethemusical.co.uk
Photos by Mark Senior