Since one of the major characters in "Aspects of Love" is an artist who fakes paintings, it is probably a testimony to the artistic integrity of the show that virtually everything about it is fake.
The fake-ness begins as soon as the show does. A young man standing in silhouette starts to sing. His voice is so ludicrously overamplified there seems to be no connection between it and the throat in which it is located. Within about 20 seconds he is "emoting" wildly, but it comes from vocal tricks, not any believable anguish.
He is singing a song called "Love Changes Everything," which is obviously one of the tunes we are supposed to carry home with us. To help us do so, we hear "Love Changes Everything" - a repetitive, insistent tune - endlessly.
(At first I tried to clock its reoccurrences: After the initial hearing at 8:08 it reappeared at 8:25, then at 8:37. By 8:20 - this, I'm afraid, is an estimate - we had heard the second take-home tune, "Seeing Is Believing," which was reprised by 8:30. I wish the "C" train came this often.)
The story our hero, Alex, recounts begins backstage, where a young French actress with whom he has fallen in love is finishing the leading role in Ibsen's "The Master Builder" in some provincial French town. Here at least we are dealing with material considerably more substantial than either the music or lyrics of "Love Changes Everything" or "Seeing is Believing." But here, too - presumably by design - the acting is gratingly fake. Alex, who is English, spirits the actress, Rose, to his uncle's French country house in the one evocative sequence in the show (not because of the material, but because of the lovely visual effect of a train moving through countryside). Here we meet Uncle George, the aforementioned painter of fakes, who immediately falls in love with Rose and steals her from Alex.
Then begins a series of affairs. Uncle George also has a mistress in Venice, Giulietta. Rose falls in love with Giulietta. Later Alex falls in love with Giulietta. Later still Alex falls in love with George and Rose's daughter, his own niece.
When the novel on which this was based appeared 35 years ago, some of this may have been shocking. (The events, I am told, are based closely on some of the goings-on of the Bloomsbury literary circle.) Today the shock value is gone, and the only thing that could make this tepid version of Schnitzler's "La Ronde" interesting is if we genuinely believed these people were in love with each other.
But all the evidence we see is fake. The songs that establish these romances are fake. Andrew Lloyd Webber's tunes are rudimentary (except for a lilting second-act number whose beginning is drawn from the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein "They'll Never Believe Me.") The lyrics, by Don Black and Charles Hart, are depressingly simple-minded (straining to rhyme "crazy soirees" with "lazy Sundays," or uttering banalities like "Love brings you pain / Like nothing you've known / But it is worse / Than facing life alone?")
The lovers' caresses seem fake. (At one point, for example, Alex has to partially disrobe Rose to embrace her, which appears calculated and, well, fake.) Their recriminations seem equally fake. So, of course, do their numerous reconciliations. Trevor Nunn, who directed, has settled for quick, grand gestures with nothing behind them.
As Alex, Michael Ball has a lovely voice, but his boyish face registers little beyond vapidity. Ann Crumb, as Rose, has a rich but hard voice. What she mainly suggests as she flits from lover to lover is not a deep capacity for love but rather a chilling, brisk efficiency.
Kevin Colson projects a repellent smugness as Uncle George. There is a lot of pursing of lips, a lot of supercilious smiling. Colson too has an elegant voice, and the frequency with which he must sing softly and in head tones is a measure of the preciousness of the score. Kathleen Rowe McAllen plays Guilietta swaggeringly. Danielle and Deanna DuClos make a nice impression as the daughter at different ages.
Gillian Lynne has contributed some vulgar dances in two extraneous numbers in Act II, one of which suddenly transports us from the generally all-too-genteel mood of the country house to the spirit of "Zorba," but it too is fake.
Normally British musicals have opulent scenery. The foundation of Maria Bjornson's designs here is interesting brickwork on a back wall; for Americans, alas, what it suggests is not rural France but rather 19th-century industrial architecture. It distracts more than it evokes. She does have amusing sculpture in Venice and her costumes have flair.
There is nothing wrong with failure, especially for someone who has had as much success as Webber. But "Aspects" doesn't seem like the kind of failed effort from which you can learn. It never really explores the complex material. It is rather a relentless, heartless attempt to create another "hit."
The really fascinating aspect of the new Andrew Lloyd Webber musical "Aspects of Love," which opened at the Broadhurst Theater last night, is what a truly engrossing piece of music theater it all is.
It is neither cute like "Cats" nor dramatically - and effectively - sensationalist as "Phantom." It is nothing more than a love story, or rather a mixed bouquet of love stories, set to sweepingly romantic music.
A breakthrough piece for Lloyd Webber, it has taken a minor, but diverting, novella by David Garnett - one of the lesser, if still distinctive, lights of London's Bloomsbury period - and turned it into a deliciously sensual piece of music theater.
This lightfingered story of tangled lovers - Broadway has not had such a joyous or atmospheric opera of love, its carnal pleasures, pitfalls and spiritual anxieties since Stephen Sondheim's "A Little Night Music" - has a style and quality that carries all before it. One of the major pleasures of the evening is the consummate theatrical skill and literary fidelity with which Lloyd Webber has adapted Garnett's book for the stage.
Little is changed and less is omitted, yet the odd blandness of Garnett's story of love among the free spirits - a novella set on the rampantly naughty wilder shores of Bohemia - is made sweet and poetic in Lloyd Webber's slightly amused and somewhat distanced treatment.
The two male characters, a young English army officer, (Alex) and his aristocratic uncle (George), were originally portraits of Garnett himself at different stages of his life, and the two women, the French actress (Rose) and the Italian sculptor (Giulietta), who love them both, also represent Garnett's own sybaritic hedonism.
Lloyd Webber has very well caught the spirit of Garnett, and indeed that of the Bloomsbury set, with his insistence - expressed by George - that "Life goes on, Love goes free." The dimensions of the piece are quite different from anything else Lloyd Webber has written before - for the first time they are human and domestic, no Christian ritual, no dictators, no animals, no machines, no phantoms. People, just people.
When I first saw "Aspects of Love" last season in London, the actual score struck me as pleasing, but, together with the intermittently banal lyrics by Don Black and Charles Hart, the most suspect part of the show's total theatrical impact.
Now having seen it again unchanged on Broadway - with virtually the same cast as in London - and heard the original cast recording a number of times, I must modify that opinion, even while still, in some part, maintaining it. Unquestionably, as I see and hear it, the whole is greater than the score. Yet Lloyd Webber has here tackled the entire question of music for the Broadway opera with far more sophistication and authority than ever before. Perhaps this new maturity came with "Phantom" - but there, because the piece was deliberately 19th-century opera house pastiche, the breakthrough in musical awareness was not so evident.
"Aspects of Love" is by far the composer's most original and homogeneous score. Yes, of course, much of the inspiration and impetus, still comes from late Italian opera, Puccini and the rest, here sometimes tempered with a sort of Mozartian humor, yet Lloyd Webber now seems concerned to find his own musical voice.
The musical texture - with its leit-motifs, inlaid web of recitative and aria, and the consistency of composer's idiom and character - has a new charm and lightness, and the orchestration (Lloyd Webber is, I think, unique among Broadway composers in following serious operatic practice by providing his own orchestrations) shimmers.
He uses the microphone - its ability to project voices to cut through the orchestra - with a technological acceptance new to opera, and in his hands amplification can become a technique rather than a blunt instrument. My doubts about the score still reside in the composer's determination to set the musical clock back - but I must admit he is beginning to tell the time by it. It sounds less and less like old pastiche and more and more like a new Lloyd Webber.
The piece is devised something like a screenplay, and Trevor Nunn has staged it with the same cinematic visual energy he applied to "Les Miserables" and "Chess." Combined with Maria Bjornson's subtly opulent designs and Andrew Bridge's supportive lighting, the evening already has much of the quality of the wonderful movie it is destined to become.
There are no star names in the cast and, intentionally, no star performances - it is an ensemble piece of opera house balance, even though the actor-singers themselves are marvelous. Vocally, especially, the young tenor Michael Ball as Alex is absolutely remarkable - he has some of the most grateful songs to sing and sings them with a luxuriant passion.
Ann Crumb makes a touching and likely figure as the Cressida-like Rose, Kevin Colson has the right suave and avuncular lassitude for George, while Kathleen Rowe McAllen offers a tempestuous Guilietta, Walter Charles provides a diffident yet stalwart figure as Rose's actor-manager Marcel, while Danielle Du Clos proves a delight as the gawkily lovelorn teen-age daughter of George and Rose who Michael so dangerously nearly loves.
Yet more than the performance itself it is the atmosphere of the experience of "Aspects of Love" that is likely to linger with you after the curtain's fall. We have become accustomed to the British musical hammering us with its new spectacle while haunting us with its old melodies. This one is different - unless atmosphere can be spectacular, and old wine be decanted for fresh palates. But, of course, they can - and this loveliest of musicals, easily the best currently on Broadway, effortlessly proves it.
This is a great night for love and lovers.
Andrew Lloyd Webber, the composer who is second to none when writing musicals about cats, roller-skating trains and falling chandeliers, has made an earnest but bizarre career decision in ''Aspects of Love,'' his new show at the Broadhurst. He has written a musical about people.
Whether ''Aspects of Love'' is a musical for people is another matter. Mr. Lloyd Webber continues to compose in the official style that has made him an international favorite, sacrificing any personality of his own to the merchandisable common denominator of easy-listening pop music. Though ''Aspects of Love'' purports to deal with romance in many naughty guises - from rampant promiscuity to cradle-snatching, lesbianism and incest - it generates about as much heated passion as a visit to the bank. Even when women strip to lacy undergarments, the lingerie doesn't suggest the erotic fantasies of Frederick's of Hollywood so much as the no-nonsense austerity of Margaret Thatcher's Britain.
The inspiration for the production's dour game of musical beds is a 1955 novella by David Garnett, a secondary Bloomsbury figure and the son of the great Russian translator Constance Garnett. The tone of the adaptation is more Barbara Cartland than Virginia Woolf. For two acts sprawling over 17 bewildering years, the audience tries to track a young Englishman named Alex (Michael Ball) and his much older Uncle George (Kevin Colson) as they bounce between a French actress (Ann Crumb) and an Italian sculptor (Kathleen Rowe McAllen). The women, named Rose and Giulietta, have a quickie affair of their own along the way, to the extent that anything in ''Aspects of Love'' can be described as quick.
To find out why everyone is forever taking tumbles in the hay - literally so in a laughable hayloft scene - one must turn to the philosophical lyrics, which were written by the previous Lloyd Webber collaborators Don Black (''Song & Dance'') and Charles Hart (''The Phantom of the Opera'') and seem to have been translated, though not by Constance Garnett, from the original Hallmark. ''Love changes everything, hands and faces, earth and sky,'' sings Alex. ''Life goes on, love goes free,'' adds Uncle George a little later. ''There is more to love than simply making love,'' concludes Giuletta. But perhaps Alex is most to the evening's point when he sings at the outset that love can make ''a night seem like a lifetime.''
Every sentiment in ''Aspects of Love,'' as well as an ever-changing a la carte menu of food and aperitifs, is sung. And sung again and again. Mr. Lloyd Webber, as is his wont, rotates a few tunes throughout his show, some of them catchy and many of them left stranded in musical foreplay. But this time the composer's usual Puccini-isms have been supplanted by a naked Sondheim envy. The first song for the two young lovers, ''Seeing Is Believing,'' echoes ''Tonight'' in ''West Side Story,'' and a later duet for dueling male rivals recalls ''A Little Night Music'' (as does much of ''Aspects of Love,'' its staging included). One also encounters the ghosts of Lerner and Loewe's ''Gigi'' in Uncle George, who is the avuncular, Champagne-sipping Maurice Chevalier boulevardier reincarnated as a truly dirty old man. When men thank heaven for little girls in ''Aspects of Love,'' chances are the girls will turn out to be jail bait.
What neither Mr. Lloyd Webber nor his collaborators can provide is a semblance of the humanity that is also, to some, an aspect of love. The misogyny in this show is more transparent than in other Lloyd Webber musicals where the general rule is to present principal female characters as either prostitutes (''Evita,'' ''Cats,'' ''Starlight Express'') or sainted virgins (''Jesus Christ Superstar,'' ''The Phantom of the Opera''). Both heroines of ''Aspects of Love'' frequently behave like bitches and whores, to use the epithets of the male characters. Their men, meanwhile, are overgrown English schoolboys who have no idea that women can be anything other than girls they pick up at Harry's Bar or the nearest stage door.
The sexless casting of the principal roles by the director, Trevor Nunn, only adds to the musical's icy emotional infantilism. From her very first line - a line from ''The Master Builder,'' no less - Ms. Crumb's Rose is a tough cookie, unconvincing as a tempestuous star known for her performances of the classics or as a femme fatale who, in her words, ''could have a thousand lovers.'' With her piercing singing voice and loud, fake laughter, this actress could shatter glass more easily than hearts.
Like Ms. Crumb, Ms. McAllen is an American performer who originated her role last year in the West End. She, too, is a brassy belter who makes no attempt to convey her character's European background and artistic temperament and who is further handicapped by unflattering costumes (by Maria Bjornson) that, in Giulietta's case, announce her Lesbian Tendencies with every pantsuit. While Mr. Colson's silver-maned Uncle George is an amiably drawn cliche - the cultured, moneyed old roue with a ''lust for living'' - Mr. Ball's Alex cuts a preposterous figure as a libertine. A beefy juvenile who would fit right in with the Trapp Family Singers, Mr. Ball bares his chest for no worthwhile esthetic or prurient reason, but not to the point of dismantling the chest mike from which emanates his entire personality.
With the exception of Andrew Bridge's lighting of mountain vistas, almost nothing in Mr. Nunn's production is appropriate to a work that aspires to romantic Continental finesse. Miss Bjornson, an inspired scenic artist for dark material like ''Phantom,'' fails to lighten up. Her oppressive floor-to-ceiling design of concrete-colored brick and cobblestones suggests two more somber Nunn productions, ''Chess'' and ''Les Miserables,'' on an enforced holiday in Ceausescu-era Romania. Even at its most bucolic, Uncle George's villa in the Pyrenees looks less like a pleasure dome than a forlorn provincial inn the season after being stripped of its Michelin Guide stars.
As much as its subject invites the spectacle of men and women dancing, ''Aspects of Love'' offers little, preferring instead to pay a gratuitous, static visit to a shooting gallery at a fairground. Gillian Lynne's scant choreography makes a superfluous circus number seem as grim as a subsequent ''Zorba''-like funeral rite. The only steady semblance of movement in the staging is provided by a treadmill that sends people and furniture trundling across the stage with lugubrious monotony. While ''Aspects of Love,'' with its references to Huxley and Turgenev, may be the most high-minded of Lloyd Webber musicals, isn't it also the one in most desperate need of roller skates?