Shining debut for Friedman

Courageous Actress Radiant In Lloyd Webber's `Woman In White'

- The Courant by Malcolm Johnson, 18/11/2005 -

NEW YORK - "The Woman in White," Andrew Lloyd Webber's adaptation of the classic Victorian thriller by Wilkie Collins, with lyrics by David Zippel and a book by Charlotte Jones, arrived on Broadway Thursday amid a dramatic blizzard of publicity, centering on the bravery of its leading lady, the astonishing English diva Maria Friedman.

Previews of "The Woman in White" began Oct. 28, and almost immediately Friedman learned she had Stage 1 breast cancer. After surgery, she returned Nov. 10 to her leading role of Marian Halcombe, bandaged and still feeling pain. And in true "show must go on" tradition, she was in amazing shape, supple in body and voice, for the opening.

The sometimes potent but uneven new musical from the onetime king of musical theater marks the Broadway debut of Friedman, a great favorite in London, where she created her role in "Woman in White," which Lloyd Webber wrote specifically for her. As the pivotal figure in a dark musical with opéra bouffe touches, Friedman proves magnetic and deeply engaging. Whether she is quietly watching romance budding between her adored, prettier sister Laura and the handsome new drawing instructor, Walter Hartright, or sending forth a clear, piercing high note of poignant regret, Friedman gives the musical the humanity and intelligence it needs.

Jones' book requires Marian to be forlorn, jealously vengeful, loving to her sister but horribly wrong in her choice of a husband for her. For the legendary Count Fosco, deliciously played by a padded Michael Ball, Marian demonstrates intelligence, wit and shrewd duplicity. When she learns of the villainies of Laura's avaricious and utterly immoral husband, Sir Percival Glyde, Marian turns ferocious and intrepid, perching on a narrow ledge in the rain to eavesdrop on the plotters. Then, half-destroyed by reports of her sister's death, she flees to London, vainly hoping to get help from the long-lost Walter.

The direction by Trevor Nunn combines with the disorienting scenery by William Dudley and the movement patterns by Wayne McGregor to create a paranoiac sense of a lone woman caught in a churning, uncaring city of sin, as whores and drunks spin and lurch by her. Then, recovered after finding and rehabilitating Walter, she plays a seductive con game on that giant slab of prosciutto, Fosco.

This scene, late in Act 2, lifts "The Woman in White" to one of its theatrical high points, but also reveals an inherent problem with this "free" adaptation of one of the true page-turners in 19th-century literature . Collins is not without his humorous moments, but his Fosco, though not as rotten as Glyde, emerges as a truly evil and unscrupulous manifestation of greed and selfishness, a gourmand who loves his little birds and mice, but who manipulates Glyde and Marian to his own wicked ends. He is more than an overstuffed buffoon who takes great pleasure in cavorting as a white rat crawls up one arm, across his neck to the other, and back again, and back again (Connecticut's own William Berloni is the rodent wrangler).

"The Woman in White," a huge favorite in its day (the undergraduate Oscar Wilde was known as Fosco) but less popular as the 20th century wore on, is a fat tome, told like Bram Stoker's "Dracula" from a variety of perspectives.

All of the leads, including Walter Charles' cranky invalid Mr. Fairlie, sing strongly, and Webber supplies them with a range of musical styles, with many an echo of "Phantom of the Opera" and "Sunset Boulevard."

The lyrics by Zippel, though occasionally as clever as his words for "City of Angels" and Disney's undervalued "Hercules," are mostly just serviceable, expressing feelings or advancing the story.

The plot all hinges on just who the mystery woman, whose name turns out to be Anne Catherick, is, and how she fits into the world of the Fairlies and Glyde.

Between the first encounter on the gloomy stage, eerily lighted by Paul Pyant, and the knockout final comeuppance, Nunn and McGregor work striking effects with the small ensemble, which shifts from merry Morris dancers, to menacing forces of the law, to the straitjacketed London loonies. It's all quite entertaining, and done with great skill.

But only Friedman pierces the heart and mind. It thus seems unlikely that "The Woman in White" has any hope of donning the mantle as a new "Phantom."

Thanks to Doris for finding and Sharing!

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