Lloyd Webber's Woman in White

- the Journal News, by Jaques Le Sourd, 18/11/20005 -

"The Woman in White" is long and dark.

It's no musical comedy, more like several episodes of "Masterpiece Theatre" with music, jammed into three hours. And it can make you positively dizzy with its swooping, Cinerama-style visual effects.

The show, which opened last night at the Marquis Theatre, is the lush new musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, directed by Trevor Nunn.

If this alone prompts you to groan, which is an entirely predictable response to Lloyd Webber's name, then you probably know enough not to waste your time and money. The creator of "Cats" and "The Phantom of the Opera" is derided today, though he dominated Broadway in the '80s. (He is also still adored by many: "The Phantom," now in its 18th year on Broadway, becomes the longest-running show of all time in January.)

Lloyd Webber has always had a taste for the gothic and the Victorian, and with "The Woman in White" he gets to wallow in the pre-Raphaelite style. The text, heavily adapted by Nunn and book-writer Charlotte Jones, is based on a drafty 1860 novel by Wilkie Collins.

"The Woman in White" is extremely heavy on plot — a startling rarity these days — and its main elements are ghostly women haunting railroad tracks, graveyards and huge English castles, and the evil men who treat them badly late at night.

The music is perhaps not top-shelf Lloyd Webber. You're not likely to come out humming specific tunes like "Memory" from "Cats" or "The Music of the Night" from "Phantom," but there are enough soaring melodies, well delivered by a solid cast, to wrap you up in a cocoon of thickly familiar (and often electronically enhanced) Lloyd Webber sound.

For the lyrics, Lloyd Webber has turned to an American collaborator, David Zippel ("City of Angels"), whose often anachronistic contemporary lyrics don't always mesh well with Lloyd Webber's deeply traditional chords.

This is also a show that comes with a highly dramatic backstage story: Maria Friedman, who plays one of two embattled sisters in the show, is just back from breast-cancer surgery. The musical's opening was not postponed to let her recover, though the critics were asked to attend only the final preview, on Wednesday night. One of the show's producers is Sonia Friedman, the actress's sister.

Friedman does a lot of the heavy lifting on this show, and her unflagging energy level is astounding.

She plays the less attractive (but probably more intelligent) sister Marian, who must watch as the man she loves falls for her more conventionally pretty sister, Laura (Jill Paice). Though she tragically persuades Laura to marry the cruel Sir Percival Glyde (Ron Bohmer) early on, she spends the rest of the show atoning for this sin.

The show's visual component makes the constantly spinning "Les Miserables" (another famous Nunn project) seem static in comparison. The stage is equipped with a turntable which is almost always in motion, and a semi-circular screen on which moving computer-graphic images are constantly projected.

Set, costume and video designer William Dudley calls this "navigable scenery." There are times when the effects are beautiful and atmospheric, and other times when it's more like a speeding vehicle out of control. In any case, all the motion can leave you with a mild headache at the end of the evening.

The two main settings are a grand Tudor castle called Limmeridge House in Cumberland, where the half-sisters Marian Halcombe and Laura Fairlie live with Laura's invalid father (Walter Charles), and the sinister Blackwater House, which is the menacing home of Sir Percival, to which Laura will move after her ill-fated marriage. There is a lot of time spent in the surrounding spooky woods.

From the beginning, the show is haunted by the specter of Anne Catherick (Angela Christian), who may or may not be a ghost. She is the "woman in white" of the musical's title, and she has a terrible secret that she won't impart (of course). She first appears to Walter Hartright (Adam Brazier) at a railroad station. Hartright is coming to Limmeridge House as a drawing teacher, and he will awaken the erotic fantasies of both sisters.

What humor there is in this frankly somber show is provided by Michael Ball as a well-padded Count Fosco, the deliciously evil accomplice of Sir Percival. Fesco is enamored of Marian. A doctor with a full syringe and a spiked drink seemingly always at the ready, Fosco sings the show's sole comic number, "You Can Get Away With Anything" late in Act 2. In one of many encores that are part of the number's overextended gag, Fosco shares the stage with a trained white rat, who scampers back and forth across his shoulders as he sings. (Much earlier he talks to a live mouse he carries in his pocket, the point of whose presence was lost on us.)

Musical director Kristen Blodgette is the most animated conductor we've ever seen in a Broadway orchestra pit, which seems fitting somehow.

This is a show about fevered emotions in a high-Victorian milieu. Fasten your seatbelts, and enjoy the ride.

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