The Woman in White : Favoring Style Over Substance

- by Andy Propst, 23/11/2005 -

Much has been written about William Dudley's set and video design for the new musical The Woman in White . For this piece, adapted from Wilkie Collins' Victorian novel of the same title, Dudley has devised a pair of shifting cycloramas onto which are projected three-dimensional computer-generated renderings of the piece's interior and exterior locales. For some, these renderings may bring to mind the computer game "Myst."

When combined with the turntable on which both shift continually, and with a few physical set pieces that bring to mind cut lace from Victorian greeting cards, "Woman" flows with remarkable ease from grand mansions' interiors to exteriors. Similarly, audiences, and the cast, can be whisked from the ground level up three stories as if propelled by some theatrical panoramic camera shot.

Dudley's design serves "Woman," which has been through-composed by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, and which has a book by Charlotte Jones, by allowing scenes spill onto one another seamlessly. It's difficult to imagine how the musical might be otherwise staged as characters can move from one locale to another within sometimes the space of just a few musical notes.

Even as one marvels at the marriage of live performance and technology in "Woman," though, the lush sterility of the locales created by Dudley are emblematic of many of the problems inherent in the musical itself. One longs for the visual "feel" of real damasks and velvets surrounding the characters almost as much as one longs for Webber, Jones, and lyricist David Zippel to plumb further into the psyches of Collins' rich characters.

The titular heroine of the musical is a forlorn creature whom Walter Hartwright (played solidly by Adam Brazier) encounters on a foggy night on his way to Limmridge House, where he has been engaged as drawing-master for half-sisters Marian Halcombe and Laura Fairlie. The apparition, Ann Catherick, tells Walter that she has a secret that she desperately needs to share, but before he can glean what it may be, Ann has disappeared into the recesses of a train tunnel (Dudley's first major feat of cinematography in the theater).

Ann's secret, as one might expect, has profound implications for the story that follows as Walter and Laura (beautifully sung by Jill Paice, who bears no small resemblance to Angela Christian's mysterious, and slightly shriek-y Ann) fall in love, but cannot pursue their consensual passion because of her impending marriage to Sir Percival Glyde (Ron Bohmer makes for a charismatic villain), a man in love not with Laura, but rather her fortune.

Glyde's scheming (with the help of charlatan of a doctor Count Fosco – played with brio as a comic buffoon oozing malevolence by Michael Ball) results in Marion (a forceful Maria Friedman) having to solve the mystery of "the woman in white". Anyone familiar with the staples of Victorian fiction will know that "Woman" includes a scene set in an insane asylum, a moment in which Marion must forgo her Victorian primness in favor of a more robust sexuality to reach her goal, and, punishment of Glyde. Jones' book doles out the twists and turns with felicity and Zippel's lyrics fit Webber's music with grand ease.

But, just as one longs for a physical manifestation in the musical's scenic elements, one longs to hear Webber and his collaborators go deeper into these characters' psyches. While one will hear echoes of many of Webber's previous creations in the score for "Woman" and these musical phrases can be repeated ad infinitum as the evening progresses, theatergoers will find that there are portions of the composer's score that can be quite haunting and beautiful – particularly when he is approximating what contemporary audiences consider Victorian parlor music. Too often though, he and his music go astray; it's in the "big" moments, for instance Marion's climactic declaration as the first act draws to a close. Friedman sings with all her considerable power "We will not be victims Laura. We will right this wrong."

For this theatergoer, something more substantial has taken place in Marion's emotional and intellectual world. She has realized that it's incumbent upon her to lay aside her traditional role, and in the second act of "White", theatergoers will discover the not insignificant shifts that she will make. Rather than relying on the bombast that served so well in his own musicals, such as "Phantom" or in other Victorian musical dramas (such as "Jekyll and Hyde"), one wishes that this moment (and the solo that precedes it: "I swear upon my soul/I'll find a way to set you free/All for Laura/Till my dying breath/Long as you're in need of me/I will somehow find a way to be strong/I will live to right this wrong" were less surface declarations and more introspective.

What ultimately makes The Woman in White work is the undeniable pull of Collins' melodrama that's unfolding so fleetly in this Trevor Nunn-staged production. "Woman" may not have reached its potential visual or psychological depths, but the musical certainly delivers the goods when it comes to putting over its tale of love and villainy, where good seemingly naturally triumphs over evil

Thanks to Doris for finding and sharing

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