Message in a Bottle Review: Smashing the Jukebox Musical (And That’s a Good Thing)

Message in a Bottle 3

To anyone currently grinding his teeth at the sight of Message in a Bottle, the new tour of the West End dance show featuring the music of Sting, or to anyone thinking another frigging jukebox musical!?…we forgive you in advance for the reaction.

Jukebox musicals, of course, have become as plentiful on the Great White Way as pigeon dung, and often share similar quality. That doesn’t stop producers from littering Broadway and the West End with muiscals overstuffed with pop music hits and underwritten plots. On the contrary, it might add to the appeal: tourists love walking into a theater to see a show that affirms their fandom and offers no provocation to deeper thoughts or empathy.

Jukebox Smashed

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Image Credit: Lynn Theisen/Broadway in Hollywood.

Message in a Bottle, the UK dance musical making its North American premiere at the Hollywood Pantages violates that trend. Though set to an entirely prerecorded soundtrack of both solo hits by Sting and The Police, and though the performers do not utter a word on stage, the show invites the audience to feel and even think something about its content. That doesn’t make it groundbreaking, but in an era of ever-more-pandering Greatest Hits shows, it does make it a refreshing anomaly.

As directed and choreographed by Kate Prince, Message in a Bottle tells the story of a family living in a faraway desert country. Violence interrupts their idyllic life, and the rise of a dictatorship forces them to flee overseas to seek a new home. Once they arrive on land again, they endure life in a refugee camp almost as violent as the home they fled. Corruption, prostitution, and trauma all infect their minds as they struggle to hold on to love and hope that they will find peace and happiness again.

If the summary sounds general, it is: the dance nature of the show precludes any deep detail about the characters or their situations. Everything here happens in pantomime against minimalist sets. The production owes much to the lighting design by Natasha Chivers, which creates a mood to recontextualize Sting’s music.

A New Move

Message in a bottle
Image Credit: Helen Maybanks/Broadway in Hollywood.

That doesn’t prevent Message in a Bottle from a few on-the-nose needle drops: “Roxanne,” of course, deals with one character forced into prostitution, while “Don’t Stand So Close To Me,” becomes a literalized comment on gang violence. That these obvious uses of songs don’t invite giggles from the audience testifies to the power of Prince’s direction. Message in a Bottle uses pop songs, but that doesn’t mean an audience can’t take them seriously. Other tunes fare much better. “Englishman in New York,” a tribute to queer scion Quentin Crisp, becomes a scene of culture shock. “The Bed’s Too Big Without You” evolves from a heartbreak ballad into one character’s post-traumatic stress nightmares.

Yet the great innovation here comes from Prince’s choreography. Like the greatest work of Jerome Robbins, the movement in Message in a Bottle somehow manages to convey character and plot. The dance reveals personality dynamics, both in how the performers dance with and against one another. Characters feel distinct, and their relationships have a specificity. Viewers come to know these characters and even care about them. Message in a Bottle could have devolved into bombastic virtue signaling. As a credit to both Prince and her cast of extraordinary dancers, this story always feels sincere.

Message in a Bottle strikes a good balance between pop entertainment and avant-garde expressionism, blending the two into a performance both accessible and provocative. At a lean two hours, it never drags, and though Sting’s tunes feel radio-friendly as ever, the commitment of the cast injects them with newfound drama. Jukebox musicals don’t have a reputation for depth or challenging plots, but Message in a Bottle defies convention to tell a story with real emotional power that impresses and, above all, deserves to be seen.

Rating: 8 out of 10 Specs. 

Message in a Bottle plays at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre through February 11 before continuing on to the Buell Theatre in Denver (Feb. 13-25) and the Cadillac Theatre in Chicago (Feb. 28-Mar. 3.) A full list of cities and dates can be found on the official tour website.

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Author: David Reddish

Title: Managing Editor

Expertise: Movies, Television, Politics, All Things Geeky


David Reddish is the award-winning writer behind the novels The Passion of Sergius & Bacchus and the Sex, Drugs & Superheroes series. He's also a noted entertainment journalist, having written for such publications as Wealth of Geeks, MovieWeb, ScreenRant, Queerty, and Playboy. Reddish holds his degree in film studies from the University of Central Florida, and resides in Studio City, CA.