Review: Broken Wings, Theatre Royal Haymarket

Rob Houchen and Nikita Johal
RATING: ★★★★★

There is nothing more exciting that when you've hyped up a new piece of work to all of your friends and family and then it's even better than you expected. From the moment I first heard about Broken Wings, I was hooked. I love supporting new musicals and especially diverse work so an original musical based on the life of the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran sounded amazing to me.

I fell in love with the concept album and was so excited that the short four day run the musical got to do at the Theatre Royal Haymarket (my favorite theatre!) coincided with my family visiting from the States so that they could see it as well. (They're all as in love with it as I am.) In June, I got to interview co-writer, associate producer, and star Nadim Naaman for BroadwayWorld UK about the new work he'd created.

Broken Wings is an emotional, soaring musical based on the semi-autobiographical poetic novel of the same name by Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran, first published in 1912. (If you didn't know, Gibran is the third best-selling poet worldwide.) Its book was written by Lebanese West End actor Nadim Naaman and its score by Naaman and the Qatari composer Dana Al Fardan.

It tells the story of a young Kahlil Gibran who has returned from Boston to his native Beirut to further his studies. There, he runs into his father's friend Farris Karamy and spends much of his time with him and his beautiful daughter, Selma. The two easily fall for each other, but there are barriers to their love. The themes of immigration, women's rights, religion, relationships between parents and children, and the freedom to love who you love are sure to resonate with a modern audience.
Soophia Foroughi, Nadim Naaman, and Rob Houchen
One of my favorite things about Broken Wings is that it's narrated by an older heartbroken Gibran in New York City, looking back upon his youth. I love musicals that are told in retrospect (like Phantom of the Opera and Hamilton) because I think the sense of impending trouble can add to the energy of the show. This production brilliantly staged the older Gibran in the background of many of the scenes, watching as his younger life plays out.

While the book is really rather wonderful, it's the music of Broken Wings that I fell head over heels for. The score itself reminds me of Maury Yeston's music (particularly Titanic) but with a Middle Eastern element. Many of the lyrics are clearly taken from or inspired by Gibran's poetry so they have a clear poetic influence in them. "Selma", one of Young Gibran's solos, is easily my favorite song of the whole show but I also love "'Til Death Reunites Us", "The Spirit of the Earth", and the "Prologue". You can read my review of the whole album here.

In addition to writing and associate producing the show, Nadim Naaman played Kahlil Gibran, aged 40, a role he's perfect for. His vocals are very well-suited to the music and he brought both a charisma and heartbreaking devastation to Gibran. I often found myself watching his reactions to the events unfolding before him. It's strange to think that the narrator Gibran we see had only eight more years left before his death.

The young Nikita Johal did an impressive job as the beautiful and intelligent Selma Karamy, particularly considering that she stepped up from the ensemble only a week before when the actress originally cast in the role had to pull out of the production for personal reasons. I appreciated that she somehow lent both a fragility and strength to the character and was touched by her acting in many scenes.

I've been a fan of Rob Houchen's work since seeing him as Marius in Les Mis years ago, so I was thrilled that he was playing Kahlil Gibran at the age of 18. Houchen has one of the best voices in the West End and his "Selma" was fantastic. The way that he portrayed Gibran's journey from a fresh-faced, optimistic boy to a heartbroken, melancholy man was astounding.

Adam Linstead was wonderful as Selma's father, Farris Karamy, with an appropriate warmth and lovely voice. Nadeem Crowe lent a great humor and charisma to Gibran's friend, Karim Bawab. He easily stole the scenes he was in. One of the standout performances was Soophia Foroughi as Gibran's mother (and a few other assorted roles). She has one of the best voices I've ever heard on a stage and brought me to tears with "Spirit of the Earth".
Soophia Foroughi and Rob Houchen
The cast was rounded out by a wonderful ensemble, with Irvine Iqbal as the evil Bishop Bulos Galib and Sami Lamine as his wastrel nephew Mansour Bey Galib. Broken Wings was one of the shows that is improved by the obvious love the cast has for it.

While this was a short 'semi-staged' run at the Haymarket, it boasted an impressive yet simple set and costumes. The beautiful costumes, designed by Nik Corrall, helped to ground the action in the place and time period. The set was also gorgeous with many moving set pieces that helped to fully realize the action, designed by Claudio Rosas and Mira Abad. I can't imagine anyone directing the show better than Bronagh Lagan and I'd love to see her design a large-scale production in the West End.

I loved that they gave out free programmes to everyone who came to see the show. As an American who is used to Playbills, I'm often frustrated that it's hard to learn more about the show you're seeing and who is in it without buying a programme. I thought it was a very nice gesture to give all the audience a programme so that they could learn more about Gibran, Broken Wings, and the talented people who put this show together.

Broken Wings is a beautiful well put-together musical in its own right, but the most important thing about it to me is that it brought a Middle Eastern story to a West End stage, written by Middle Eastern creators. I believe that sharing diverse stories on the stage is important, especially those by diverse creators, particularly because of how it can help people see themselves represented.
Nadeem Crowe and Rob Houchen
It was amazing to be a part of an audience that had more Middle Eastern people in it than I'd ever seen in a theatre before and know that many of them probably had grown up with knowledge of Gibran and were getting to see that part of their history represented on the stage. I felt that I actually learned about early twentieth-century Lebanon and Gibran himself and I am definitely planning on reading the novel the show is based on within the next few months.

I will never forget the way the audience leapt to their feet at the beginning of the curtain call the night I saw it, the first night of its run, or the look on Nadim's face when it happened. I hope that this show goes on to have a long life -- I'd love to see it have a full run in the West End or on Broadway, but I'd especially love to see it have a life in Lebanon and the Middle East.

Broken Wings ran at the Theatre Royal Haymarket from August 1-4. You can find the cast album featuring many of the actors from its run on iTunes. 

Photo Credit: Marc Brenner
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