Woman in White's not perfect, but she'll do

- Houston Chronicle by Everett Evans, 23/12/2005-

Lloyd Webber production is his best in years

NEW YORK - What ever happened to Andrew Lloyd Webber?

It may seem an odd question to ask about the hit-spawning composer whose Phantom of the Opera next month will surpass his Cats to become the longest-running show in Broadway history.

But Lloyd Webber hasn't had an outright smash on Broadway since Phantom opened in 1988. Sunset Boulevard started well in 1994 but closed at a loss after a disappointing run (for Lloyd Webber) of 2 1/2 years. Neither of the next two, Whistle Down the Wind and The Beautiful Game, fared well enough in London to cross the pond. The pocket-size By Jeeves, a heavily revised version of his early flop Jeeves, ran two months on Broadway in 2001.

Thus, the recently opened The Woman in White is huge news for Lloyd Webber's legion of fans: his first new show on Broadway in a decade and his bid to craft another lush romantic thriller à la Phantom.

The bad and good news: It's not perfect, but it is Lloyd Webber's best in years, with several numbers at the level of his finest score, Aspects of Love.

Love story, with a secret

Based on Wilkie Collins' classic Victorian novel, The Woman in White begins with Walter Hartwright journeying to a remote estate as drawing master to two half-sisters, Marian and Laura. While stranded at a deserted railway station, he has his first brief encounter with the mysterious, ghostlike title figure, who is fleeing an unnamed pursuer and has a secret she is desperate to share.

Walter and Laura fall in love, which crushes Marian, who also loves Walter. Laura is engaged to Sir Percival Glyde and winds up marrying him, despite Walter's effort to share the mystery woman's warnings against Glyde.

Only after Walter is banished and Laura has married Glyde does she learn he is a wife-beating cad who wed her for her money. Marian, guilty at having encouraged the marriage, sets out to rescue Laura by exposing Glyde. For that, she must find Walter and the Woman in White, the first wife Glyde has locked away in an asylum — for she holds the key to bringing down the villain.

This is ripe, romantic melodrama well-suited to the type of score Lloyd Webber does best. But there are built-in challenges Charlotte Jones' libretto strives to overcome. The plot is convoluted, not as cleanly focused as that of Phantom. Protagonist Marian is the odd girl out in the love story, which winds up more or less shunted off to the side. The most colorful and entertaining figure is Glyde's rotund accomplice Count Fosco, who travels with an entourage of odd pets (rodents and birds) in little cages. He keeps threatening to pull the show's focus.

The score's highlights include Marian's ironic welcome to Walter (I Hope You'll Like It Here) and her unlikely Seduction scene inveigling Fosco. His A Gift for Living Well and You Can Get Away With Anything are prime comic-character songs. The lovers' boffo ballads I Believe My Heart and Evermore Without You are predictably pleasant, if too on-the-nose to truly soar. The emotional peak is All for Laura, Marian's impassioned vow to save her sister.

Yet for all that is enjoyable in the score, there are a few dire miscalculations.

Having the Woman in White cap several arias by shrieking her final high note may be intended to express anguish, but it sounds merely ludicrous. Because Laura's ill-fated wedding to Glyde takes place at Christmas, Lloyd Webber has set the scene to a dreary, discordant arrangement of the traditional carol The Holly and the Ivy, with its Christmas lyrics intact! Finally, as Marian searches London for Walter, the chorus accosts her with Lost Souls, in which every Londoner is a leering, staggering brute threatening to assault her. Sheer overkill and just plain dumb, the song plays like a reject from Jekyll & Hyde.

Lyrics, sets fare well

David Zippel's variable lyrics fare best in character and comic turns. As for the romantic lyrics, he's no Oscar Hammerstein or Alan Jay Lerner.

Director Trevor Nunn demonstrates visual wizardry, moving the show with cinematic sweep. It should, since William Dudley's production design has the action play against an ever-shifting panorama of computer-generated backdrops projected onto revolving sections of curved white walls. This often dizzying device creates striking effects, "panning" or "zooming in" as in a movie.

Yet the production concept may be too modern and technological for a Victorian yarn that might be more at home among traditional sets, furnishings and heavy drapes. One wonders how this material would fare in a different production, whether it would play a few degrees warmer and more involving.

The Woman in White has been beset with backstage drama. London stage star Maria Friedman, a three-time Olivier Award winner making her Broadway debut re-creating her acclaimed London portrayal of Marian, was diagnosed with breast cancer just weeks before the November opening. She had an operation, then gallantly returned to open the show. When I attended last week, she was out for a follow-up procedure but was expected to return soon.

Understudy Lisa Brescia sang Marian with fervor and husky intensity — projecting the heroine's resilience, resourcefulness and heartbreaking sacrifice as she puts her sister's interest before her own.

Michael Ball has an actor's holiday in the plum role of oily, portly Count Fosco, all vanity, hedonism and sly panache. He's the soul of sprightly, unrepentant villainy in You Can Get Away With Anything, singing the encore chorus with a large white rat scampering up one arm and down the other. The routine is so delightful that both rats should be rewarded with a big piece of cheese.

Adam Brazier's Walter is a standard Lloyd Webber juvenile, handsome and stalwart-voiced. Jill Paice lends Laura her fetching looks and sweet soprano. Ron Bohmer puts a persuasively genteel facade on Sir Percival Glyde, until it's time to show his villainous hand. And, those wild top notes aside, Angela Christian's titular Woman is properly distraught, pitiable and unearthly.

For fans of Lloyd Webber and/or musical melodrama, The Woman in White, despite some shortcomings, is well worth a look and listen.

Thanks to Doris for finding and sharing!

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