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“Your Lie in April” at Harold Pinter Theatre 

Mark Shenton in the West End
10 July 2024

The impressive programme brochure for Your Lie in April is designed to be read back-to-front, just as books are published in the Far East, where the story it is based on was first published as a best-selling manga. Written and illustrated by Naoshi Arakawa, it has sold over 7.5 million copies in 17 countries, and has now been turned into a musical that was premiered in Tokyo in May 2020.  

 

Photo credit: Craig Sugden.

Featuring music by prolific Broadway composer Frank Wildhorn, it also represents only the second Wildhorn musical ever to reach the West End for an extended run. And we’re seeing them back-to-front too, with this – his most recent global offering – following in the footsteps of the 2022 West End premiere of Wildhorn’s most recent Broadway entry Bonnie and Clyde, which ran briefly in New York in 2012, but proved more successful here, transferring from the Arts to the Garrick (though a subsequent national tour was aborted after just a few weeks). But we are otherwise yet to see either of Wildhorn’s longer-running Broadway entries, Jekyll and Hyde or The Scarlet Pimpernel, which together with the short-lived The Civil War meant the composer had three musicals running simultaneously on Broadway briefly in 1999. In the process, he became the first American composer to achieve that milestone in some 22 years.  

Like Bonnie and Clyde, Your Lie in April began its UK life in a concert version, staged over two nights at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in April, directed and choreographed by Nick Winston, who was also responsible for staging the London version of Bonnie and Clyde. Now with a full, multi-level set of various platforms artfully arranged around an explosion of pink cherry blossoms, prettily designed by Justin Williams and augmented by video by Dan Light, it moves up another gear to this complete production.  

As such, it achieves yet another couple of landmarks: not only is it the first musical here to ever feature a cast entirely made up of actors of East Asian heritage, it also saw its London premiere coincide with the simultaneous premiere of a second production of the show in Seoul in Korea. So there’s a lot of cultural significance attached to this event, and it’s a relief to say that its producers’ confidence is not entirely misplaced.  

But will a West End saturated by already familiar jukebox musicals and shows with ready-brand recognition be willing to embrace something so out of left-field, and with no name recognition stars in it either? I hope so, for this is a respectable and intriguing original musical, though it is not without its earnest clichés and mawkish moments. But there’s also a likeable sincerity to the commitment of its entire cast, who seem to know and relish the opportunities it provides them to offer a window into their own cultural heritage.  

The cast is led by Royal Academy of Music graduate Zheng Xi Yong, as an aspiring and inspiring professional pianist named Kōsei Arima who, following his mother’s sudden death, finds himself unable to hear the music he is playing. But a young fellow musician Kaori Miyazono (Mia Kobayashi, making her professional debut straight out of graduating from ArtsEd) brings him back to the stage; as love blossoms between them, she is taken seriously ill.  

This may be a hackneyed premise for a drama – and is not coincidentally quite similar to that in the musical version of Love Story, also revolving around a virtuoso pianist – but it comes to life here thanks to the skills of the cast, most notably Yong who plays piano live throughout.  

Wildhorn wraps it in a sweeping score, integrating classical standards but also offering its own melodic ballads (one of his signature specialities) that as orchestrated by Jason Howland (a composer with Broadway credits in his own right) often sound sumptuous. Lyrics are by Carly Robyn Green and Tracy Miller, with the book by Riko Sakaguchi, adapted into English by Rinne B. Groff.  

I was caught unawares by how surprising this show proved to be. I was expecting a cheap summer filler; instead, the show earns its place in town.