Wednesday 23 August 2023


Theatre review: Death Note: The Musical in Concert at the London Palladium

Death Note is a popular manga series by writer Tsugumi Ohba and illustrator Takeshi Obata, which has garnered a steady fan base throughout its 20-year history and countless adaptations, from anime to a live action Netflix movie. A musical version was inevitable to bring this epic story to the stage – and it's finally made it to the London stage! 

High school student Light Yagami is frustrated that criminals can just go free by playing the system. So when he find the death note of Shinigami Ryuk, a Japanese mythical creature of death, and figures out that he can write anyone's name in the notebook to kill them, he quickly turns into a vigilante trialling criminals with the power of his pen. As the death toll rapidly rises, the police rope in mysterious detective L to track down the vigilante only known as "Kira". 

But while the police think him a bad guy, the general public admire Kira. One person in particular, pop sensation Misa, is in love with him. She ropes in Shinigami Rem as the cat-and-mouse game between Light and L becomes increasingly dangerous and the lines between right and wrong don't just blur, they start to dissipate completely...

The team behind the musical Bonnie and Clyde – writer Ivan Menchell, composer Frank Wildhorn, and lyricist Jack Murphy – created an English-language concept album for Death Note: The Musical nearly 10 years ago. But it took until now (and successful runs for the show in Japan and South Korea) for it to get an English-language staging. And wow, was it was worth the wait! Die-hard fans ensured a sold-out run for the three performances at the London Palladium in August, and so this concert version is transferring to the Lyric Theatre for another limited run next month. Snap up your tickets while you still can!

I was probably one of the few people in the auditorium on Monday evening who wasn't already hugely familiar with the story and characters of Death Note. Many people were dressed as their favourite characters – and the atmosphere in the theatre was electrifying, each of the main cast getting a huge round of applause when they first appeared on stage. This really added to the experience and even made up for the inevitable first-night sound issues. 

And while the European premiere of Death Note: The Musical has been promoted as a concert staging, it felt pretty fully staged to me. Audiences were treated to tight choreography by Nick Winston, beautiful costumes by Kimie Nakano (especially the Shinigami looked sensational), eye-catching lighting design by White Light Ltd, a paired back but wonderful set by Constructive Creative, and plenty of dialogue. All of this meant that it appeared very much as a full-blown production and even the uninitiated, like myself, could easily follow along with the story. 

That said, the strength in this limited London run really lies with its excellent performances and absolutely banging score that's still living rent free in my head several days later. The music by Frank Wildhorn and Jack Murphy comprises an interesting mix of raw rock tunes and 80s pop – and it absolutely works. Stand-outs are any songs where the dramatic tension starts to rise and those that pit Light and L against one another, including Hurricane, The Game Begins, and Playing the Game. Special mention also for They're Only Human, in which Ryuk and Rem observe humanity in a deliciously exaggerated Disney-villain way, and Misa's I'm Ready, which wouldn't feel out of place in an 80s top 40. 

The casting for this production was spot on and I wouldn't be surprised if we'd see some of the performers again in a future run of the show: Joaquin Pedro Valdes' Light undergoes a transformation from mere high school student to righteous vigilante within just a few songs. He's pitted perfectly against Dean John Wilson's L, who was already a delight as the titular character in Disney's Aladdin but has really amped up his charms for this show. They're balanced out by Frances Mayli McCann's sweet Misa, who feels less black-and-white than Light and L, even in her moments of absolute obsession. 

The fantastic Adam Pascal and Aime Atkinson round out the main cast as Ryuk and Rem, respectively, their actions prompting a lot of the ethical questions audiences undoubtedly have after seeing the show. It was a particular honour to see Pascal (who originated the role of Roger in Rent) strut his stuff – what a voice and what a show-stealing stage presence! Even when Ryuk isn't talking, merely floating cat-like around Light, you cannot help but be pulled into his orbit (and it's not just because his costume dons a majestic feathered collar). 

Death Note: The Musical in Concert felt like a real "event of the season". While I'm not familiar enough with the source material to say from my own knowledge if the musical did it justice, the audience reactions on that first night really spoke for themselves. When an adaptation of a story and characters that are so beloved can satisfy the fans, then that's already a job well done. And if can then also thoroughly entertain entirely new audiences, it opens up the doors for a proper West End run. Because, like Bonnie and Clyde before it in London, this is a show that deserves to be seen by many more people than those who have the privilege to watch the concert staging.

Death Note: The Musical in Concert is playing another limited run in London 7-10 September 2023, this time at the Lyric Theatre. You can book your tickets here.

Adam Pascal as Ryuk and Joaquin Pedro Valdes as Light. Photo credit: Mark Senior

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