Dear Sleepless in Seattle, I just can't fall for your musical revamp

Nora Ephron’s romcom was brilliantly written and perfectly cast with an elegant score. Our chief theatre critic, who loves the film, writes a letter after seeing its stage adaptation

Dear Sleepless,

I can’t believe it has been almost 30 years since you stole our hearts in your original incarnation as a film. We bought that romance starring Tom Hanks as Sam – an eligible widower and insomniac from Seattle – hook, line and sinker. And we felt flutters when Meg Ryan’s Annie fell instantly in love after hearing him on a radio show, along with all those other single women who posted love letters to him, in hope.

Now you’re back, staged as a musical in London! I confess I was giddy about seeing you again all these years later. But I also wondered how your director, Morgan Young, would transpose Nora Ephron’s film, with its alchemical mix of perfect casting, elegantly jazzy score and meta film moments into musical form on stage. Sleepless in Seattle tugged heartstrings without featuring a single kiss and even I, an inveterate hater of romcoms, felt the polar ice caps of my heart melt when Annie saw that giant love heart illuminated on the Empire State Building.

So how do you scrub up now? Well, I was glad to be sitting in an auditorium, vast even with its drastically reduced capacity (from 1,200 to 400) and watching a cast sing, touch and occasionally hug on stage. This has clearly cost your producer, Michael Rose, money and courage and I admire him for putting on the production at this time.

But this isn’t the love letter I had hoped to send. It’s frustrating because you seemed so right on paper – a love story that took us back to a safer time than our own and reassured us with its magical thinking on romantic destiny and finding new love after loss. That is as it may be but I just didn’t feel a charge this time around and I hope it won’t hurt your feelings too much to say that my heart didn’t miss any beats.

Jack Reynolds as Jonah and Jay McGuiness as Sam
Boyish charm ... Jack Reynolds as Jonah and Jay McGuiness as Sam. Photograph: Alastair Muir

You look dashing enough – Morgan Large’s set niftily revolves between Sam’s houseboat in Seattle and Annie’s home and office in Baltimore and it creates a lovely intimacy, despite the size of the stage. But your mood seems sedate and your pace is decidedly sleepy at times. The mist of grey light that lingers across the stage isn’t doing you any favours, either. Yes, you have a lovely live jazz orchestra but the songs by Robert Scott and Brendon Cull are bland and the jazz sounds like cruise liner entertainment at times.

It was always going to be tough for Jay McGuiness and Kimberley Walsh to emulate the chemistry of Hanks and Ryan, and I don’t think they succeed, although McGuiness brings boyish charm while Walsh belts out the big notes with vim. But it all feels like they – you – are going through the motions, not driven by passion and yearning.

I am disappointed by your lack of movement, too, particularly when you have McGuiness and Walsh, with their Strictly Come Dancing successes. I know that Young didn’t want to make this a “jazz hands” musical but a few splashy numbers might have helped bring some energy. Even the single dance sequence at the end feels half-hearted.

You haven’t aged so well in your gender politics. Michael Burdette’s book stays faithful to the original screenplay but now Sam seems like “retro” man rather than the sensitive “new man” he was in 1993, trying to be a good father to Jonah (played by Jobe Hart, one of four actors in the role). His anxiety around women who take the lead grates, and his reference to Fatal Attraction sounds so dated, while with his leering, beer drinking buddy, Rob (Cory English), just looks like a middle-aged frat-boy now.

And that line about all unattached women over 40 being desperate is so wrong, but it still stings. I’m sorry that your 1990s men fear our appraising glances and feel free to ignore my judgments here. As Annie says in the show, “All those stars, they’re just stars, they don’t mean a thing.” But for me, you are probably a two out of five.

Contributor

Arifa Akbar

The GuardianTramp

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