Is there any composer more perfect for Victorian melodrama than Andrew Lloyd Webber, the man behind "Cats" and "The Phantom of the Opera"?
His scores are expansive, emotional and always embroidered with a few melodies you can't get out of your head.
There are at least two such insistent tunes in "The Woman in White," Lloyd Webber's tasteful, decorous take on Wilkie Collins' compelling mystery novel which opened Thursday.
Yet despite all the passion in story and song, this lavish production, directed by Trevor Nunn, only fitfully raises the theatrical temperature at Broadway's Marquis Theatre. Most of the heat is provided by Maria Friedman, playing the odd-woman-out in a love triangle that is one of the evening's many plot lines.
Friedman, who gamely returned to the production last week after breast-cancer surgery, plays heroine Marian Holcombe with an intensity and commitment that makes you believe all the more in her portrayal of the show's spunky, selfless heroine. Marian is the one who, in the end, does the right thing, including giving up the man she loves.
The actress, making her Broadway debut, has a strong singing voice, too, able to negotiate her big Act 1 ballad with considerable skill, while defining the intelligent, strong-willed Marian in the process.
Collins' convoluted tale has been drastically condensed by playwright Charlotte Jones, author of "Humble Boy."
Yet this "Woman in White" still contains a lot more story than most musicals these days. It's a thriller of sorts, although by today's brutal, bloody standards, its chills are on the genteel side.
The title character is first seen within minutes of the opening, a spectral figure glimpsed by handsome young drawing-master Walter Hartright (strongly sung by Adam Brazier) on his way from a spooky railway station to tutor two half-sisters, Friedman's Marian and the beautiful, yet more fragile Laura (Jill Paice).
This ghostly yet very real apparition, portrayed with earsplitting screechiness by Angela Christian, has a dastardly secret, one that eventually will spill out - and not particularly shock anyone.
Meanwhile, Laura, who bears a strong resemblance to that ethereal creature, is engaged to the evil Sir Percival Glyde, whose all-consuming insincerity is delightfully delivered by a sneering Ron Bohmer.
Glyde's pursuit of Laura is aided by his good friend, Count Fosco, a rotund, rodent-loving Italian nobleman. This colleague in misdeeds is impersonated by a jovial, ingratiating Michael Ball, done up in a stylish fat suit that makes him look like a circus ringmaster gone to seed.
It's Ball who provides the show's few moments of humor, particularly with his Act 2 ditty, "You Can Get Away with Anything," in which he cavorts with a large white rat that scampers back and forth across his arms and around his collar.
Lloyd Webber's score is not as adventurous as his last theatrical outing - "The Beautiful Game," an under-appreciated musical set in strife-torn Northern Ireland, and still, unfortunately, not seen in New York. Still, there are some lovely moments, particularly the eerie opening railway sequence and some beautiful trios for that love triangle of Marian, Laura and their art tutor.
More conventional are several typical Lloyd Webber pop anthems, in which David Zippel's workmanlike lyrics are not at their best. "I believe my heart, it believes in you," goes one of the more persistent, awkward lines.
Nunn's direction never stops, to say the least. That's because designer William Dudley's turntable setting is awash in video projections. They move quickly from that railway station to a baronial mansion to green fields to a graveyard to a grim London street and beyond. This astonishing marriage of film and stage provides some novel if sometimes head-spinning visuals.
Those ever-revolving projections are about the only special effects to be found in "The Woman in White." No crashing chandelier like in "The Phantom of the Opera" or performers on roller skates like in "Starlight Express."
This latest from Lloyd Webber is more refined and, consequently, a little dull around the edges.
In case you don't know, every review of a British musical must begin with comments about the sets.
"The Woman in White," the new Andrew Lloyd Webber musical based on Wilkie Collins' best-selling 19th century novel, has no chandelier, no revolving barricades and, of course, no helicopter. (It does have a furry creature, but more on that later.)
What makes "Woman in White" unusual is that, except for occasional pieces of Victorian furniture, all the sets are projections on a series of constantly moving curved wails. The effect is to create vertigo, which is entirely suitable for a thriller.
Trevor Nunn, who directed "Woman," has been toying with cinematic devices ever since his production of "Chess" 17 years ago. He has never done it more effectively than in this melodrama about two fatherless sisters outwitting an unscrupulous lord who is after their legacy.
The use of projections, stunningly designed by William Dudley, enables the scenes to fly by. Sometimes the images seem blurred and the pace is dizzying. But even in the quiet scenes, there is a sense of tension and momentum.
Lloyd Webber's score is entirely focused on keeping the story moving. In the early scenes, in which there are a few duets and trios, there is a shimmering delicacy to the music.
At times, the romantic material reminds you of the love duet in "Phantom of the Opera." At other times, there seems an unconscious echoing of some phrases from "My Lord and Master," from Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The King and I," probably reflecting the theme of a subjugated woman yearning for the freedom to love.
For the first time in decades Lloyd Webber has had the wisdom to use an American lyricist. The last time he did so it was dead poet - and cat lover - T.S. Eliot, whose words were sometimes muddied by the superlush music.
This time it is David Zipper, whose lyrics are full of elegance and wit. Lloyd Webber's unexpectedly self-effacing music mirrors their crispness.
The two have created a marvelously sinuous "aria" for Michael Ball, whose sly humor as an oily Italian count adds immeasurably to the unsettling mood of the show.
As he slinks about singing "You Can Get Away With Anything," a talented white rat cavorts up and down his arms. It makes your jaw drop.
What gives "Woman" its dramatic power is Maria Friedman's shattering performance as the sister of the unlucky bride. Hers is the most complex role in the complicated story, and she brings enormous emotional weight to what might otherwise be merely a whodunit with supernatural overtones.
Jill Paice performs beautifully as her ill-fated sister, and Adam Brazier is extremely appealing as the artist they both love. Angela Christian brings a suitable eeriness to the title character, Ron Bohmer is wonderfully suave as the villain and Walter Charles makes the girls' uncle poignant.
Only some clunky, happily brief bits of choreography mar the masterly stagecraft of this breathtaking piece of musical theater.
We’ve heard about leaving the theater humming the scenery, but people at Andrew Lloyd Webber's "The Woman in White," which opened last night at the Marquis, will probably leave buzzing about the video projections.
This despite Lloyd Webber's best score since "Aspects of Love," and a splendid cast headed by Maria Friedman.
Make no mistake about it: This is a thrilling musical with a weirdly engrossing tale full of artifice and spine-chiller twists.
Yet it's the look of "The Woman in White" that's revolutionary, transforming a might-see into a must-see. Designer William Dudley and director Trevor Nunn have come up a masterful projected background that's a breakthrough in epic-style staging, combining the live impact of the stage with the freedom of the screen in a way that's almost dizzying.
Wilkie Collins' famous genre piece is a great choice for Lloyd Webber's style of pop-operatic romanticism; from it, playwright Charlotte Jones has carved a coherent story out of the rambling original.
The mystery itself remains intact. Its young artist hero Walter (Adam Brazier) encounters a strange, wraithlike "woman in white" named Anne Catherick (Angela Christian). There follows odd shenanigans surrounding the marriage of Laura Fairlie (Jill Paice) in the spooky house where Walter has been hired to give painting lessons to her and her half-sister, Marian (Friedman), the story's true heroine.
Lloyd Webber's love of Victoriana is given untrammeled play, with luscious melodies and tunes that sound as if they came from the Anglican hymnal and English folksong. Some will find it somber and sentimental; others will mock his operatic use of interweaving themes as repetitive.
Yet, thanks to Nunn's sharp eye and steadying hand, it worked for me.
Also helping matters are Dudley's designs, Jones' niftily tailored book (David Zippel's occasionally trite lyrics are a lesser matter) and a wonderful cast.
Friedman grabs hold of her role with passion and a richly emotive voice. A magnificent Michael Ball, playing against type and in a Michelin-sized fat suit, brings a comic suavity to the oily Count Fosco. As for that live white rat cavorting around him, I wonder: Should there be a Tony for Performing Animals?
Bravely flouting centuries of accepted scientific theory, the creators of "The Woman in White" have set out to prove that the world is flat after all. Inspired by the spine-tingling Wilkie Collins novel of 1860, this latest work from the poperetta king Andrew Lloyd Webber, which opened last night at the Marquis Theater, seems to exist willfully and unconditionally in two dimensions.
It's not just that this import from London, directed by Trevor Nunn and designed by William Dudley, has rejected a conventional set in favor of computer-animated projections that make you feel as if you're trapped inside a floating upscale travel magazine. It's that everything concerned with this reshaping of a landmark English mystery novel (adapted by the playwright Charlotte Jones, with lyrics by David Zippel) gives the sense of having been subjected to a similar process of flattening and compression.
Plot, characters, words and most of the performances in this tale of love, deception and unspeakable secrets in Victorian England emanate the aura of autumn leaves ironed into crisp immobility between sheets of waxed paper. There is, of course, Lord Lloyd Webber's music, which swirls and slides and glides its way into your inner ear, where it will rest for many a day, whether you want it to or not.
But even the music has the feeling of freeze-dried Lloyd Webber motifs to which water has been added for the occasion. Like the show's visuals, its sounds - with British folk and liturgical accents, along with occasional atonal ominousness, spicing the usual melodic stew - tantalize with a promise of substance that is seldom delivered.
Before we go further, let's cut to the real drama of "The Woman in White," which has nothing to do with ghostly apparitions in churchyards and virgins in jeopardy. As was reported in this newspaper, the show's star, Maria Friedman, received a diagnosis of Stage 1 breast cancer on Oct. 31, and after performing in only five of the show's previews, underwent surgery. A week later she was back onstage, in a physically and vocally taxing role.
In the best tradition of backstage stories of determination and triumph, Ms. Friedman, a longtime favorite of London musical audiences, makes an impeccably professional Broadway debut. Portraying Marian Halcombe, the plainer and cleverer of two sisters exploited for evil ends by a sinister nobleman, Ms. Friedman is required to be incorrigibly perky and to scamper a lot in heavy period dresses, a form of movement that should be forced upon no one over 12.
But when she sings of hope and heartbreak and honorable vengeance for dirty deeds, her deeply expressive voice has the sheen of emotional truth. Ms. Friedman's Marian clearly believes every word she sings. Would that the audience could share her conviction.
Lord Lloyd Webber has described his latest score as his most operatic and complex. And when the show begins, amid clouds of stage smoke, Lloyd Webber fans may be slightly disappointed by the fragmented, dissonant quality of the music, more reminiscent of Benjamin Britten's "Peter Grimes" than of "The Phantom of the Opera."
But within 10 minutes, that familiar glucose sweep of melody has begun. And while the score periodically wanders into less sweetly harmonic territory, as in a wedding sequence that turns the carol "The Holly and the Ivy" into a dirge out of a Hammer horror movie, you can always feel the music ready to return to its natural valentine frilliness.
If in Lloyd Webber productions like "Cats" (the longest-running musical on Broadway) and "Phantom" (poised to surpass "Cats" for that same distinction) the music seems on the verge of segueing into an aria by Puccini, in "The Woman in White" you often expect the songs to mutate into older Lloyd Webber beauties like "Memory" and "All I Ask of You."
Such numbers are here mostly sung by the love triangle made up of Ms. Friedman's Marian, her beauteous half sister, Laura Fairlie (Jill Paice), and Walter Hartright (Adam Brazier), the handsome young man who comes to tutor the girls (orphans, of course) in art on the grand country estate of their hypochondriacal uncle (Walter Charles). (A shriller counterpoint is provided by a pre-Raphaelite madwoman, screeched by Angela Christian as the title character.) Though much of the novel's tension stems from feelings repressed or unacknowledged, the characters here find their hearts right away. Belonging to Lloyd Webber land, those hearts refuse to stay quiet.
"I believe my heart," they sing, as flocks of musical notes, suggesting butterflies and cherubs, flutter around them. It took me three months to get that darn tune out of my head after seeing the show in London more than a year ago. And I am now resigned to having it whispering in my mind for months to come. Like it or not, Lord Lloyd Webber is a master of brainwashing. And in "The Woman in White" he takes that mastery to new extremes, with insistently reiterated motifs that act on listeners like branding irons.
Such sounds are deployed in a long march of recitative that explains and re-explains the elaborate plot in exceedingly clunky lyrics. (My personal favorites include "I must disregard his charms/ And his manly rugged arms," and "I was sure I heard her screaming/ But they told me I was dreaming.") Scenes of fight and flight, of seduction and betrayal occur as Marian, Laura and Walter step into and escape from snares set by the fortune-hunting bounder Sir Percival Glyde (Ron Bohmer) and his mustache-twirling accomplice, Count Fosco (Michael Ball, wearing a fat suit and a music-hall Italian accent).
The physical action (Wayne McGregor is the movement director) feels annotative instead of organic. The show is all big generic set pieces - of discovery and catastrophe and confrontation - that fail to stir because they seem only to further the plot, not define the characters. There's a cold efficiency in both Ms. Jones's streamlining and rearranging of the labyrinthine novel and in Sir Trevor's staging, which keeps the ensemble moving with martial surefootedness on a constantly revolving turntable.
It's not surprising that the performers have little chance of establishing personalities beyond that of decorative chess figurines. As the sybaritic, amoral Fosco, Mr. Ball, in a role created in London by Michael Crawford, certainly has the flashiest part and liveliest songs. But while the only genuinely chilling moments belong to him (as when he kisses an unconscious, drugged Marian on the lips), Fosco is basically a Disney cartoon villain. Since everyone seems robotically programmed, it's especially refreshing when he puts a live white rat on his shoulder for a jaunty number about making crime pay. There is, for a moment, actual suspense, when it looks as if the rat might not respond on cue.
"The Woman in White" has the misfortune to be the second musical slice of Victorian Gothic to open on Broadway in the last several weeks. The first was John Doyle's reconceived staging of "Sweeney Todd," the Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler tale of a homicidal barber. Both shows make a macabre case for there being "no place like London" (to borrow a Sondheim lyric), with nightmarish street scenes of urban hell.
But despite (or perhaps because of) having a much smaller cast, orchestra and stage - and nothing approaching the literal-minded scene-setting of Mr. Dudley's projections - "Sweeney Todd" draws you straight into an anxious fever dream; the songs seem to come from within you. By contrast, "The Woman in White" feels as personally threatening as a historical diorama behind glass. It's not a terrible show, but it's an awfully pallid one. The difference between it and "Sweeney Todd" is the difference between water and blood.
There are three heroines in "The Woman in White," and two actually do wear white. There are also two villains - one brutal, one buffo – along with yards and yards of Andrew Lloyd Webber music, much of which sounds as if it could be snipped from any part of the lumbering three-hour extravaganza and inserted anyplace else without disturbing the momentum of the slush.
For all the bodice-ripping melodrama and pretty belting in this adaptation of Wilkie Collins' Victorian novel, however, the star of the spectacle that opened last night at the Marquis Theatre is - no surprise, here – the scenery. Forget falling chandeliers and singers on roller skates. The news about Lloyd Webber's first big Broadway show since "Sunset Boulevard" and its humongous winding staircase arrived a decade ago is a dizzying set.
Think Gothic operetta, then imagine it in an IMAX arcade. The big innovation in Trevor Nunn's mildly involving production is the use of designer William Dudley's nonstop video, which whips us from train tunnel to rooms of a hilltop estate, across the gorgeous countryside and through London's most Dickensian streets.
Theatergoers who feel queasy when they read and ride are hereby warned that, for example, people dash romantically around on turntables that spin counterclockwise while beautiful backgrounds take the eye and the action around in the other direction. We believe Dudley's claim that the most disorienting effects have been toned down from the London production, which made us feel nostalgic for theater that merely made us feel spiritually sick. Still, vertigo pills at the concession stand would not be unwelcome.
In period and apparent intent, "The Woman in White" brings Lloyd Webber back to the luscious comic-book heyday of "Phantom of the Opera," his only remaining Broadway hit. Indeed the composer, whose "Whistle Down the Wind" and "Beautiful Games" never made it to New York, is back on track in some ways.
At first, his score - with all the dialogue sung - has the astringent discipline of a Benjamin Britten opera. Before long, alas, the generic ballads burst though, followed by waves of unearned climaxes, interspersed with droning hymnal melodies. "I Believe My Heart," the love song for the hero and his chosen woman-in-white, sounds more like a nursery rhyme, with head-bangingly simple David Zippel lyrics: "I believe my heart/it believes in you."
The show, adapted by Charlotte Jones from a novel beloved in England, involves a mysterious woman who wears white and has a Big Secret that will affect the marriage of another woman - Laura, an heiress - who also wears white, as well as her self-sacrificing, penniless spinster sister, Marian. Both sisters fall deeply for the handsome tutor hired to teach them to draw.
The actresses, all thee imported from the London original, blend their voices in stirring, close harmonies.
The gifted and gutsy Maria Friedman, whose recent breast-cancer surgery has had her all over the news, performs with nuance and without apparent diminution as Marian, the less beauteous sister - i.e., the brunette - who dedicates her life to protecting Laura, her more fortunate but endangered sister. Jill Paice floats lyrically though her travails, while Angela Christian communicates the mysterious woman's secret in a high, striking, nasal shriek.
Adam Brazier has an amiable high-tenor ardor as the smitten Walter, though Dudley's otherwise exquisite costumes put him in a suit that appears uncomfortably tight. Walter Charles is good and cranky as Laura's rich old hypochondriacal uncle. Ron Bohmer is appropriately duplicitous as the sadistic, debt-ridden nobleman whom Laura must massy.
Ah, but the real fun comes from Michael Ball in a fat suit as the villain's Italian accomplice, Count Fosco - a role originated by Michael Crawford, the Phantom himself This is a secondary character, stylistically jarring but a very big treat as comic relief. His theme music is a staccato tango. He does a triumphant duet with a live white rat, which traverses his arms and neck while he sings "You can get away with anything as long as you don't bore" and "I can get away with anything because I have no shame." Any relationship between this and "Give 'em the Old Razzle Dazzle" from "Chicago" is purely sentimental.
At the start of "The Woman in White," designer William Dudley zooms in, within a projection of a roomful of Victorian clutter, on a zoetrope, a quaint relic that provides a rudimentary moving image long since superseded by more sophisticated forms of visual storytelling. Similar limitations apply to Andrew Lloyd Webber's first new musical to open on Broadway since "Sunset Boulevard" 11 years ago. The composer's customarily lush, faux-operatic 1980s musical idiom feels like a throwback, while the emotion, mystery and romance of the Wilkie Collins potboiler is consistently dwarfed by the mechanical artificiality of the design concept.
There is good news, however. Trevor Nunn's production is now considerably tighter (and almost a half-hour shorter) than the staging that opened in London last fall. And while they still call to mind a walking tour of historic Britain as reimagined by a PlayStation designer, Dudley's CGI projections have at least been stabilized so they no longer provide the kind of nerve-jarring experience that would make the novel's valetudinarian Mr. Fairlie wince.
The show also boasts two persuasive performances of very different stripes. Revealing herself to be a valiant trooper by stepping back into her role in time for opening night after only the briefest of absences for emergency breast cancer surgery, Maria Friedman sings with effortless expressiveness while delicately exploring the humor, pluckiness and melancholy self-reproach of Collins' heroine, Marian Halcombe. And Michael Ball (last seen on Broadway in 1990 in Lloyd Webber's "Aspects of Love") animates every scene he graces; his corpulent, twinkle-toed Count Fosco is a gleefully wicked caricature that injects a welcome shot of vibrancy.
Charlotte Jones has filleted the doorstop of a book down to workable size, tacking on an awkward new ending. She honors the story's literary roots as the foremost example of the 1860s genre, the Novel of Sensation, by focusing on the dark secret held by the ghostly title character. But mystery and suspense take a back seat to romance in the tormented emotional triangle that links handsome young drawing instructor Walter Hartright (Adam Brazier) to half-sisters Laura Fairlie (Jill Paice) and Marian. Crucially, Jones has jettisoned Collins' original revelation concerning Laura's nefarious fiance, Sir Percival Glyde (Ron Bohmer) -- that he is illegitimate and has no right to his title -- for darker truths that will have a more sinister ring for contemporary auds.
For all its villainous men, imperiled women, palpitating hearts, murder and madness, however, the melodrama feels sadly hollow. Opening scene, in a fog-shrouded railway station, conjures an eerie atmosphere as Hartright encounters the woman in white (Angela Christian), who emerges out of a tunnel, babbling about being mistreated by a man whose name she refuses to utter, and then vanishes again just as suddenly. But that atmosphere evaporates as Hartright reaches Limmeridge House.
It's a challenge to get immersed in any story when the actors are competing for attention with the underlit, low-definition images on Dudley's giant curved screen, its central panel occasionally separating and gliding forward. The flat cartoon realism of scenes in the stately mansion or its surrounding woods alongside gurgling waterfalls resembles "Shrek" without the critters. For both economic and artistic reasons, there may be a future for filmed scenery taking the place of movable sets, but it seems fundamentally at odds with this show's Victorian sensibility.
Lloyd Webber's music, while it tempers the syrupy romanticism of his melodies by weaving more complex, discordant textures that echo the story's troubled moods, fires off almost its entire arsenal in the first act and then remains stuck in repetitive overdrive. Each character's theme melody resurfaces, strung together with musical wallpaper.
There are no standout numbers, and the ballads "I Believe My Heart" and "Evermore Without You" sound like corresponding songs in "Phantom of the Opera" or "Sunset Boulevard," with efficient but uninspired new lyrics by David Zippel. Lloyd Webber's style has been so thoroughly lampooned over the years -- most recently in "Spamalot" -- it's now hard to take these songs at face value.
Dramatic numbers like "The Nightmare," in which the drugged Marian is visited in her sleep by her anxieties; and "Lost Souls," when she travels to a Dickensian London populated by beggars, muggers,
whores and inebriates, are staged by Nunn with plodding literal-mindedness. Also missing the mark is the villagers' folkloric chant "Lammastide," which seems like a rustic outtake from some other archaic show you never want to see.
Friedman stirs the most profound sentiments in "All for Laura," near the close of act one, in which she berates herself for having steered her wary sister into a loveless marriage to a fiend and sent away the man they both love. Otherwise it's left to the dandified, fat-suited Ball to liven things up with his two numbers, "A Gift for Living Well," in which he outlines his bon vivant credo; and especially, prancing through the showy ode to unscrupulous behavior, "You Can Get Away With Anything." "There's only one thing one has to have/One has to have no shame," sings Ball, his skills as a campy farceur reaching new heights as a large white rat scampers up and down his arms.
Brazier makes a vigorous, youthful romantic lead, and Paice displays a pretty soprano and an appealingly tremulous stage presence. Bohmer's Glyde and Walter Charles' crabby Mr. Fairlie are a little colorless, while Christian, whose accent wanders over the moors of more than one county, mistakes shrill and abrasive for ethereal and possessed. Nunn puts all of the actors through their paces, having them stride across Dudley's constantly spinning turntable. But in this solemn, lumbering show, they keep moving while getting nowhere.