Woman has a moving effect

- NY Daily News by Howard Kissel, on 17/11/2005-

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 walls. 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 Zippel, 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.

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