The Woman in White

- Backstage by Leonard Jacobs, 18/11/2005 -

The synthesizer-bloated strings tell you at once that The Woman in White is the new Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. It's that lush Lloyd Webber mush we've heard before -- in The Phantom of the Opera, Aspects of Love, Sunset Boulevard . But the problems here transcend the talents, admirable or abysmal, of Andrew Lloyd Webber. They stem from how book writer Charlotte Jones and lyricist David Zippel musicalize the tale -- based on Wilkie Collins' Victorian thriller and set in England -- and also, indirectly, Trevor Nunn's stunning visual framework for the production.

Walter Hartright (Adam Brazier), hired to be an art tutor to devoted half sisters Marian Halcombe (Maria Friedman) and Laura Fairlie (Jill Paice), arrives at a foggy railway depot. From the fog comes fluttery Anne Catherick (Angela Christian), a secret-bearing, white-wearing woman. She vanishes before Walter meets his flirty charges, but then she keeps reappearing, offering hints and clues. Does her secret relate to Laura's engagement to Sir Percival Glyde (Ron Bohmer) -- a match made by the girls' uncle (Walter Charles) -- and the reason why Laura cannot marry him? Is the fulsome Count Fosco (Michael Ball), set to officiate, involved?

In true gothic-novel style, the layer-cake plot is more baroque than such queries make it seem. For craft-conscious musical theatre dramatists, in fact, there are considerable challenges: how to convey Marian's unrequited love for Walter; how to handle Glyde and Fosco's conspiring; how, most fundamentally, to explain who Anne is, what is behind her flits and flights, and what her secret is. Any dramaturg knows to do these things by making choices. But The Woman in White creative team makes every choice, tantamount to making no choice at all.

To put it differently, the problem here isn't Lloyd Webber's fascination with recitative or obsession with musical motif. It's easy to dismiss the score as an avalanche of music, but the real problem is that none of these collaborators knows how to use such conventions to move narrative. The result is a repetitiveness that stretches on for nearly three hours.

In this sense, Trevor Nunn is an absentee parent. Rather than guide his writers, he plays with Broadway's version of Legos: six curving panels, which serve as William Dudley's set. Onto these Dudley projects computer-generated films allowing the action (as it were) to shift locale. They are at once dazzling, dizzying, and dramatically unnecessary. Just ask Shakespeare.

Friedman, nearly sidelined by a breast cancer scare, makes a Broadway debut as sparkling as Elaine Paige's in Sunset Boulevard . Friedman's character is the only one with exploitable depth: It's for Marian to right the wrongs perpetrated on her sister, a role Paice plays with aplomb. Charles makes a jaunty uncle, Bohmer a caustic villain, and Brazier's an earnest Walter, but all are saddled with underwritten roles. By far the most enjoyable performance in this largely laughless, applauseless enterprise is Ball's dandyish Count Fosco. He gets an old-fashioned 11 o'clock number in "You Can Get Away With Anything," even singing it to a live rat. It makes for a telling tail.

Thanks to Doris for finding and sharing!

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