The Woman in White

- from by Rob Kendt, 18/11/2005-

Are we watching a Broadway show or playing Myst? There are times during The Woman in White, whose sets consist almost entirely of curved white walls upon which designer William Dudley projects a dizzying array of computer-animated backdrops, when an audience might wish they had a keypad or a joystick to speed things along, or choose to see one character more and others less. Instead this would-be Gothic mystery, based on Wilkie Collins' baroquely plotted Victorian page-turner, is planted firmly in a world with its own rules of tempo, mood and overheated narrative logic, a place somewhere between operetta and theme park.
In other words, the lordly peerage of composer/impresario Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Lloyd Webberland has been terra incognita on Broadway for some time now (though the teenaged Phantom of the Opera continues its warbly reign just a few blocks away), so it makes a fascinating exercise to see how much of the landscape has changed, and how much has not, in this gold-plated realm. Yes, Lord Lloyd Webber is now regularly plundering less from Puccini or Richard Rodgers than from his own catalogue. He still has an unmistakably tin-eared way with through-sung recitative, and the uncanny knack of making every lyricist he works with (it's David Zippel this time, for the record) sound softheaded and fatuous. He still manufactures ear candy like some kind of musical Willy Wonka, and some of it still tastes genuinely sweet when it's not giving us a sugar headache. And when he's riffing from an obvious template--in a few cases here, Gilbert and Sullivan--he's a crafty enough mimic to raise a smile or two.

What's changed? It may be those virtual sets, or just a case of simple maturity, but some of the cobwebs and clutter seem to have cleared from Lloyd Webber's familiar pop-opera shtick. The harmonies are more foursquare and hymnlike than ever, the go-for-the-gut arias huger and more sweeping, the comic fillips (such as they are) more pin-precise. When the Brontë-esque spinster Marian (Maria Friedman) vows in song to avenge the wrongs done to her half-sister Laura (Jill Paice) by a ne'er-do-well husband, Sir Percival Glyde (Ron Bohmer), it's a wrenching, pipe-busting soliloquy, "All for Laura," which has as much power, if not quite beauty, as anything Lloyd Webber has written. It feels like he's pulling out all the stops in his arsenal and channeling them through one voice.

Michael Ball in The Woman in White

The fierce, unflappable Friedman, making her Broadway debut, gives this moment operatic freight, and lends her conviction to even the show's silliest moments. At one point, her utter commitment to the play's fiction actually gets a laugh: when she's prowling on a window ledge and grasps at a slide-projected ornament on the building's side. The show's intended laughs, on the other hand, center on a jiggling fat suit containing the irrepressible Michael Ball. The character, Count Fosco, constitutes one of the stranger villains in musical theater: absurd and certainly creepy but curiously danger-free. As craven as Fagin or Miss Saigon's Engineer, he hits his high point very late in the show, in a duet with a capering white rat, "You Can Get Away With Anything."

The downside of this stripped-down, relatively distilled Lloyd Webber is encroaching boredom. Charlotte Jones' libretto makes Collins' narrative more convoluted than mysterious, while Trevor Nunn's direction, big on stage fog and spooky lighting effects (by Paul Pyant), hasn't a single scary moment. The appearances of the title character (Angela Christian) seem impish and arbitrary, and the romance that blossoms between Laura and a visiting tutor, Walter (Adam Brazier), spawns a series of dutifully ardent duets. As with Phantom's Raoul and Christine, the ostensible romantic leads are the dullest figures onstage.

There' s a final unintentional titter at a climactic special effect, toward which all the projected animation has been inevitably leading. I shouldn't reveal it, though I will say it reminded me more of Mr. Toad's Wild Ride than anything from the Gothic canon. And that's the news from Lloyd Webberland: He may have refined and clarified his palate, but he's still essentially offering a feast of cheese and syrup.

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