Take one of the most popular children’s stories of all time, add a tragic twist, set it against a stunning natural backdrop and success is almost guaranteed.
As opening night proved, Heidi – the Musical has all the right ingredients for a successful run on the shores of Lake Walen in eastern Switzerland, where the original story was set.
"I’ll definitely come back," said one young woman, a professional musician, after Saturday’s premiere. "I love the music. It was a very touching performance."
This feeling was echoed by most of the crowd at the sold-out event, which is being staged as a promotional vehicle for the tourist region, appropriately dubbed Heidiland.
The 19th-century novel has sold 50 million copies in more than 50 languages worldwide. Over the past decade the region has tried to cash in on the orphan girl’s fame by turning her into a brand, using her image to sell everything from hiking trails to casinos and Chinese medicine.
Performed in German and Swiss-German, Heidi – the Musical is a radical departure from both the kitschy 1937 Hollywood film starring Shirley Temple and the more authentic Swiss version from the 1950s.
It places Heidi’s author, Johanna Spyri, on stage with the young heroine for the first time.
Blessed with a backdrop of a tranquil lake and rugged mountains, the producers wisely opted for a bare stage and few props to tell the parallel stories of Heidi and her maker.
When Spyri’s adult son Bernhard, bed-ridden by tuberculosis, asks her to tell him a story, Heidi and the characters of her mountain village spring to life, romping about and singing in protest at Heidi being taken to live in a mountain hut with her bad-tempered grandfather.
West End goes east
The songs and storyline are as sugar-coated as in any West End musical but that was to be expected since Heidi was written by the British duo Shaun McKenna and Stephen Keeling (see related story).
There are few memorable moments (and as one woman in the audience noted, a distinct lack of "catchy tunes") as Heidi’s sacred mountain world is recreated until the crucial scene when Heidi is to be taken away by her aunt to live in Frankfurt.
This is when we find Bernhard recovering and also preparing to leave home to settle across the border with his young German fiancée.
Sue Mathys as Spyri and Florian Schneider as Heidi’s grandfather have their first chance to shine by singing a duet, lamenting the loss of their loved ones.
The musical then follows the fortunes of Heidi, who in Frankfurt is confronted by a tyrannical buffoon of a nanny. At the same time Spyri, caught in a desolate relationship with an uncaring husband, looks on.
Spyri begins to invest emotionally in the character she has created, providing the production with its only bit of suspense.
The author encourages the girl to flee the confines of her Frankfurt exile by climbing to the top of a Frankfurt church tower in order to see the mountains in the distance.
Fast-paced numbers follow in quick succession in the second act, highlighted by the nanny’s sneezing fit, and Heidi’s sleepwalking escapade which spooks the house’s brigade of servants.
The climax is reached as Spyri’s son – ill again – returns home and, just before he dies, demands that his mother complete the story of Heidi.
But it is only Heidi who has the power to console Spyri and give her a reason to continue.
Heidi crosses the divide between reality and make-believe, infusing Spyri with her good-natured spirit, and begs her to take pen in hand and let her return to her beloved Alps and her grandfather.
The musical ends happily with Heidi reunited with her grandfather. Unlike the novel, Heidi’s wheelchair-bound companion Clara is left behind in Frankfurt, and in real life the novel was completed before Bernhard died.
But this did not bother many in the audience.
"It was an entertaining evening," a journalist for a local newspaper told swissinfo. "I wasn’t convinced by the music, since the songs could have been from any popular musical like The Phantom of the Opera. But the performers were convincing and all in all it was a pleasant evening."
"I’ve been waiting to see a good musical in Switzerland for years," enthused an Australian expatriate. "It’s a children’s story but it appeals to adults by the way it’s presented. I’m very surprised. I really liked it."
"It was a lot of fun," said a ten-year-old American boy on holiday. "I thought it was creative how they mixed the two stories together."
swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Walenstadt
Heidi – the Musical runs until September 3 in Walenstadt in eastern Switzerland.
The production, performed in German and Swiss-German, tells the classic story of Heidi alongside that of author, Johanna Spyri.
Spyri’s novel about the orphan girl was first published in 1880.
It has since been translated into more than 50 languages and has sold some 50 million copies.