"The Woman in White," Andrew Lloyd Weber's new musical, has opened on Broadway at the Marquis Theatre. It is a mystery, drama, and love story about sisters with a common love interest, who are also victims of gross greed and deception. An art teacher is forewarned of a death by a trainsman while on his way to a teaching appointment. His two pupils are sisters who form a love triangle with him, a relationship especially important when one of them falls prey to an evil husband.
For theater-lovers, there are several reasons for which I recommend going to the Marquis—the set, the mature characters in a strong story, and, importantly, the star herself, Maria Friedman.
The musical has been overshadowed by the health of its star, Maria Friedman, who portrays Marian Halcombe, the plain sister. Days into the preview performances, Ms. Friedman was diagnosed with breast cancer. Out for several days to have a biopsy operation, Friedman returned for opening night. A primary difference between film and live theater is that only the latter has a true relationship between the actors and audience during the performance. In such a situation as this, the outpouring of love and support from the audience is palpable and Friedman, presented with roses by Andrew Lloyd Weber himself, said simply, "The show simply had to go on." A true theater audience lives for such moments when they can let a star know how much the performance is appreciated in the face of adversity.
The look of "The Woman in White" will be much discussed because of the computer generated scenery, created by a collaboration of Mesmer, Richard Kenyon, and William Dudley. Two turntables fill the stage, one within the other. The larger outer turntable has arc-shaped wall segments which move and open and close together. The standard stage curtain is replaced by two of these panels when they close forward. More importantly, the scenery is almost entirely projected on to these large moving walls. Door openings in the walls are matched perfectly to the doors in the computer images. Perspective view changes to give one a sense of movement through the set, a sense that may be new to older adults, but common for any child who plays computer games. It is at once a marriage of a classic simple Shakespearean set and modern technology due to its ability to deliver a variety of complex backgrounds with a minimum of stage assistance and no storage. The set is heralded in the beginning with the appearance of an old spinning moving picture cylinder that grows to engulf the curtain walls.
The story is noteworthy for being a woman's tale, from a woman's perspective. (Yes, women tend to tell stories differently from their male counterparts.) The book by Charlotte Jones (who has adapted Wilkie Collins' Victorian novel) has not one leading lady, but a cluster of women who love and support one another. Marian's song, "All for Laura," expresses her deep devotion to her sister. Even though there is a hero, he is there to help the women in their plights more than to command the show himself. Hero aside, most of the other male characters are extraordinarily self-serving. The estrogenicity of the plot simply makes our support of Friedman in her real-life circumstances that much stronger.
Although we are set up for simple monolithic characters from the utterances of their names—Hartright, Fairlie, Fosco—they prove more complex as the drama advances. Scheming Count Fosco, the evil husband's sidekick, seems in the occasional moment to protect the women.
With music by Andrew Lloyd Weber and lyrics by David Zippel, each actor has his or her moment to shine on stage, musically and otherwise. Maria Friedman has the showstopper, "All for Laura." She adds tremendous, heartfelt strength to her role. The otherwise attractive Michael Ball, dressed as Count Fosco in a fat suit, delivers the very intentionally overacted giggler, "You Can Get Away With Anything." Adam Brazier as Walter Hartright has his lilting "Evermore Without You." Even Walter Charles as the frail Mr. Fairlie has a patter song, "I Hope You'll Like It Here."
There is enough ripeness of character, humor, ingenious set design, and varied musical nuance to keep most audiences pleased.