Gothic Lloyd Webber is dizzying, not dazzling

- Newsday by Linda Winer, 18/11/2005 -

There are three heroines in "The Woman in White," and two actually do wear white. There are also two villains - one brutal, one buffo - along with yards and yards of Andrew Lloyd Webber music, much of which sounds as if it could be snipped from any part of the lumbering three-hour extravaganza and inserted anyplace else without disturbing the momentum of the slush.

For all the bodice-ripping melodrama and pretty belting in this adaptation of Wilkie Collins' Victorian novel, however, the star of the spectacle that opened last night at the Marquis Theatre is - no surprise, here - the scenery. Forget falling chandeliers and singers on roller skates. The news about Lloyd Webber's first big Broadway show since "Sunset Boulevard" and its humongous winding staircase arrived a decade ago is a dizzying set.

Think Gothic operetta, then imagine it in an IMAX arcade. The big innovation in Trevor Nunn's mildly involving production is the use of designer William Dudley's nonstop video, which whips us from train tunnel to rooms of a hilltop estate, across the gorgeous countryside and through London's most Dickensian streets.

Theatergoers who feel queasy when they read and ride are hereby warned that, for example, people dash romantically around on turntables that spin counterclockwise while beautiful backgrounds take the eye and the action around in the other direction. We believe Dudley's claim that the most disorienting effects have been toned down from the London production, which made us feel nostalgic for theater that merely made us feel spiritually sick. Still, vertigo pills at the concession stand would not be unwelcome.

In period and apparent intent, "The Woman in White" brings Lloyd Webber back to the luscious comic-book heyday of "Phantom of the Opera," his only remaining Broadway hit. Indeed the composer, whose "Whistle Down the Wind" and "Beautiful Games" never made it to New York, is back on track in some ways.

At first, his score - with all the dialogue sung - has the astringent discipline of a Benjamin Britten opera. Before long, alas, the generic ballads burst through, followed by waves of unearned climaxes, interspersed with droning hymnal melodies. "I Believe My Heart," the love song for the hero and his chosen woman-in-white, sounds more like a nursery rhyme, with head-bangingly simple David Zippel lyrics: "I believe my heart/it believes in you."

The show, adapted by Charlotte Jones from a novel beloved in England, involves a mysterious woman who wears white and has a Big Secret that will affect the marriage of another woman - Laura, an heiress - who also wears white, as well as her self-sacrificing, penniless spinster sister, Marian. Both sisters fall deeply for the handsome tutor hired to teach them to draw.

The actresses, all three imported from the London original, blend their voices in stirring, close harmonies.

The gifted and gutsy Maria Friedman, whose recent breast-cancer surgery has had her all over the news, performs with nuance and without apparent diminution as Marian, the less beauteous sister - i.e., the brunette - who dedicates her life to protecting Laura, her more fortunate but endangered sister. Jill Paice floats lyrically through her travails, while Angela Christian communicates the mysterious woman's secret in a high, striking, nasal shriek.

Adam Brazier has an amiable high-tenor ardor as the smitten Walter, though Dudley's otherwise exquisite costumes put him in a suit that appears uncomfortably tight. Walter Charles is good and cranky as Laura's rich old hypochondriacal uncle. Ron Bohmer is appropriately duplicitous as the sadistic, debt-ridden nobleman whom Laura must marry.

Ah, but the real fun comes from Michael Ball in a fat suit as the villain's Italian accomplice, Count Fosco - a role originated by Michael Crawford, the Phantom himself. This is a secondary character, stylistically jarring but a very big treat as comic relief. His theme music is a staccato tango. He does a triumphant duet with a live white rat, which traverses his arms and neck while he sings "You can get away with anything as long as you don't bore" and "I can get away with anything because I have no shame." Any relationship between this and "Give 'em the Old Razzle Dazzle" from "Chicago" is purely sentimental.

THE WOMAN IN WHITE. Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, book by Charlotte Jones, lyric by David Zippel, directed by Trevor Nunn. Marquis Theatre, 211 W. 45th St. Tickets: $25-$100. Phone: 212-307-4100. Seen at Wednesday preview.

Thanks to Doris for Finding and sharing!

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