Music/Lyrics: Caroline Wigmore
Reviewer: Holly Spanner
Van Winkle – A Folk Musical is a concept recording and musical adaptation of Washington Irving’s short story Rip Van Winkle and is the latest offering from SimG Records. With musical arrangements by Jen Green and music and lyrics by Caroline Wigmore, the recording features a nine piece band including musical saw, which sees this adaptation echoing something from a faerie tale. Drawing from childhood music and memories of growing up in Minnesota, Wigmore conjures up images of rows of corn, cold winters, and the American Dream.
Opening with the hopeful song ‘This new World’, Van Winkle – A Folk Musical begins in the years before the War of Independence, where the farmer Rip Van Winkle lives at the foot of the Catskill Mountains with his wife Wanda. Feeling tired of family pressures and dreaming of a better life, Van Winkle heads into the woods one evening where a storm brings about his encounter with sailor ghost Captain Henry Hudson. Hudson lost his life while seeking the Northwest Passage to Russia, but remains trapped on earth; bound by a curse, and so the quest for the Northwest Passage consumes his every thought. He lures Van Winkle into drinking a magic elixir with promises of fame, riches, prestige and empires. Slipping into a troubled sleep, Van Winkle wakes 250 years later the present day New York City. Dressed in his 17th century clothes, he is quickly dismissed as a beggar and forms a strong friendship with a homeless couple who are seeking shelter from the oncoming winter months. Together they set out to find Van Winkles old house, which has been long preserved as a historical landmark. Here, the stabbing realisation that his family are long dead hits Van Winkle hard, and begs Hudson to return him home.
Comprised mainly of folk music with a strong Americana influence, it is a somewhat bold choice to deviate from the conventional style of musical; however this blend of music suits the narrative, forming a deliciously original piece of musical theatre, in every sense of the word.Although the sound is different, the traditional musical theatre formulae are not lost, and the album retains a pleasing symmetry. The reprise during the final scene sees the story and music coming full circle, as the company sing about making a house a home (‘This New World’, ‘The Dinner Blessing’). The same piece of land provides comfort and shelter in both worlds, echoing the old American Dream of how owning a patch of land can bring hope, self-sufficiency and safety.
‘Watching the Door’ sung by Rachel Kurtz is a one of the highlights of the album, featuring early into the story. Fun use of percussion in ‘A Life Out There’ helps to form images of a restless man, itching to see what else life holds, set against the backdrop of the sadness that Van Winkles frustrations have caused to his wife. ‘Susanna’ is a beautifully moving song in the Second Act, as Van Winkle finds sadness in a blackened relic of his former life that has survived the centuries. Creating nostalgia of a lost time, the cello provides a thoughtful undertone while the violin carries the listener with Van Winkle as he comes to his realisation. As a concept recording, there will undoubtedly be changes made throughout the course of this musical’s development. As it stands, an overuse of ‘Old Man Winter’ loses impact from a purely audio point of view, however this would potentially be justified should Van Winkle – A Folk Musical be produced for stage.
Easy listening with a real American country vibe, this is not your standard musical. It is very much a music album in its own right. A relaxed blend of contemporary and traditional folk, rock, jazz, delta blues and threads of gospel, this is a very strong offering from SimG and ultimately a feel good production. If you like Once or The Lord of the Rings Musical, you will almost certainly like Van Winkle – A Folk Musical.