Webber's The Woman in White

- Associated Press by Michael Kuchwara on 17/11/2005-

NEW YORK - Is there any composer more perfect for Victorian melodrama than Andrew Lloyd Webber, the man behind "Cats" and "The Phantom of the Opera"?

His scores are expansive, emotional and always embroidered with a few melodies you can't get out of your head. There are at least two such insistent tunes in "The Woman in White," Lloyd Webber's tasteful, decorous take on Wilkie Collins' compelling mystery novel which opened Thursday.

Yet despite all the passion in story and song, this lavish production, directed by Trevor Nunn, only fitfully raises the theatrical temperature at Broadway's Marquis Theatre. Most of the heat is provided by Maria Friedman, playing the odd-woman-out in a love triangle that is one of the evening's many plot lines.

Friedman, who gamely returned to the production last week after breast-cancer surgery, plays heroine Marian Holcombe with an intensity and commitment that makes you believe all the more in her portrayal of the show's spunky, selfless heroine. Marian is the one who, in the end, does the right thing, including giving up the man she loves.

The actress, making her Broadway debut, has a strong singing voice, too, able to negotiate her big Act 1 ballad with considerable skill, while defining the intelligent, strong-willed Marian in the process.

Collins' convoluted tale has been drastically condensed by playwright Charlotte Jones, author of "Humble Boy." Yet this "Woman in White" still contains a lot more story than most musicals these days. It's a thriller of sorts, although by today's brutal, bloody standards, its chills are on the genteel side.

The title character is first seen within minutes of the opening, a spectral figure glimpsed by handsome young drawing-master Walter Hartright (strongly sung by Adam Brazier) on his way from a spooky railway station to tutor two half-sisters, Friedman's Marian and the beautiful, yet more fragile Laura (Jill Paice).

This ghostly yet very real apparition, portrayed with earsplitting screechiness by Angela Christian, has a dastardly secret, one that eventually will spill out - and not particularly shock anyone.

Meanwhile, Laura, who bears a strong resemblance to that ethereal creature, is engaged to the evil Sir Percival Glyde, whose all-consuming insincerity is delightfully delivered by a sneering Ron Bohmer.

Glyde's pursuit of Laura is aided by his good friend, Count Fosco, a rotund, rodent-loving Italian nobleman. This colleague in misdeeds is impersonated by a jovial, ingratiating Michael Ball, done up in a stylish fat suit that makes him look like a circus ringmaster gone to seed.

It's Ball who provides the show's few moments of humor, particularly with his Act 2 ditty, "You Can Get Away with Anything," in which he cavorts with a large white rat that scampers back and forth across his arms and around his collar.

Lloyd Webber's score is not as adventurous as his last theatrical outing - "The Beautiful Game," an underappreciated musical set in strife-torn Northern Ireland, and still, unfortunately, not seen in New York. Still, there are some lovely moments, particularly the eerie opening railway sequence and some beautiful trios for that love triangle of Marian, Laura and their art tutor.

More conventional are several typical Lloyd Webber pop anthems, in which David Zippel's workmanlike lyrics are not at their best. "I believe my heart, it believes in you," goes one of the more persistent, awkward lines.

Nunn's direction never stops, to say the least. That's because designer William Dudley's turntable setting is awash in video projections. They move quickly from that railway station to a baronial mansion to green fields to a graveyard to a grim London street and beyond. This astonishing marriage of film and stage provides some novel if sometimes head-spinning visuals.

Those ever-revolving projections are about the only special effects to be found in "The Woman in White." No crashing chandelier like in "The Phantom of the Opera" or performers on roller skates like in "Starlight Express."

This latest from Lloyd Webber is more refined and, consequently, a little dull around the edges.

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