'THE WOMAN IN WHITE'MORE ON 'The Woman in White'A Tutor, a Triangle and Hearts That Sing

- New York Times by Ben Brantley, 18/11/2005-

Bravely flouting centuries of accepted scientific theory, the creators of "The Woman in White" have set out to prove that the world is flat after all. Inspired by the spine-tingling Wilkie Collins novel of 1860, this latest work from the poperetta king Andrew Lloyd Webber, which opened last night at the Marquis Theater, seems to exist willfully and unconditionally in two dimensions.

It's not just that this import from London, directed by Trevor Nunn and designed by William Dudley, has rejected a conventional set in favor of computer-animated projections that make you feel as if you're trapped inside a floating upscale travel magazine. It's that everything concerned with this reshaping of a landmark English mystery novel (adapted by the playwright Charlotte Jones, with lyrics by David Zippel) gives the sense of having been subjected to a similar process of flattening and compression.

Plot, characters, words and most of the performances in this tale of love, deception and unspeakable secrets in Victorian England emanate the aura of autumn leaves ironed into crisp immobility between sheets of waxed paper. There is, of course, Lord Lloyd Webber's music, which swirls and slides and glides its way into your inner ear, where it will rest for many a day, whether you want it to or not.

But even the music has the feeling of freeze-dried Lloyd Webber motifs to which water has been added for the occasion. Like the show's visuals, its sounds - with British folk and liturgical accents, along with occasional atonal ominousness, spicing the usual melodic stew - tantalize with a promise of substance that is seldom delivered.

Before we go further, let's cut to the real drama of "The Woman in White," which has nothing to do with ghostly apparitions in churchyards and virgins in jeopardy. As was reported in this newspaper, the show's star, Maria Friedman, received a diagnosis of Stage 1 breast cancer on Oct. 31, and after performing in only five of the show's previews, underwent surgery. A week later she was back onstage, in a physically and vocally taxing role.

In the best tradition of backstage stories of determination and triumph, Ms. Friedman, a longtime favorite of London musical audiences, makes an impeccably professional Broadway debut. Portraying Marian Halcombe, the plainer and cleverer of two sisters exploited for evil ends by a sinister nobleman, Ms. Friedman is required to be incorrigibly perky and to scamper a lot in heavy period dresses, a form of movement that should be forced upon no one over 12.

But when she sings of hope and heartbreak and honorable vengeance for dirty deeds, her deeply expressive voice has the sheen of emotional truth. Ms. Friedman's Marian clearly believes every word she sings. Would that the audience could share her conviction.

Lord Lloyd Webber has described his latest score as his most operatic and complex. And when the show begins, amid clouds of stage smoke, Lloyd Webber fans may be slightly disappointed by the fragmented, dissonant quality of the music, more reminiscent of Benjamin Britten's "Peter Grimes" than of "The Phantom of the Opera."

But within 10 minutes, that familiar glucose sweep of melody has begun. And while the score periodically wanders into less sweetly harmonic territory, as in a wedding sequence that turns the carol "The Holly and the Ivy" into a dirge out of a Hammer horror movie, you can always feel the music ready to return to its natural valentine frilliness.

If in Lloyd Webber productions like "Cats" (the longest-running musical on Broadway) and "Phantom" (poised to surpass "Cats" for that same distinction) the music seems on the verge of segueing into an aria by Puccini, in "The Woman in White" you often expect the songs to mutate into older Lloyd Webber beauties like "Memory" and "All I Ask of You."

Such numbers are here mostly sung by the love triangle made up of Ms. Friedman's Marian, her beauteous half sister, Laura Fairlie (Jill Paice), and Walter Hartright (Adam Brazier), the handsome young man who comes to tutor the girls (orphans, of course) in art on the grand country estate of their hypochondriacal uncle (Walter Charles). (A shriller counterpoint is provided by a pre-Raphaelite madwoman, screeched by Angela Christian as the title character.) Though much of the novel's tension stems from feelings repressed or unacknowledged, the characters here find their hearts right away. Belonging to Lloyd Webber land, those hearts refuse to stay quiet.

"I believe my heart," they sing, as flocks of musical notes, suggesting butterflies and cherubs, flutter around them. It took me three months to get that darn tune out of my head after seeing the show in London more than a year ago. And I am now resigned to having it whispering in my mind for months to come. Like it or not, Lord Lloyd Webber is a master of brainwashing. And in "The Woman in White" he takes that mastery to new extremes, with insistently reiterated motifs that act on listeners like branding irons.

Such sounds are deployed in a long march of recitative that explains and re-explains the elaborate plot in exceedingly clunky lyrics. (My personal favorites include "I must disregard his charms/ And his manly rugged arms," and "I was sure I heard her screaming/ But they told me I was dreaming.") Scenes of fight and flight, of seduction and betrayal occur as Marian, Laura and Walter step into and escape from snares set by the fortune-hunting bounder Sir Percival Glyde (Ron Bohmer) and his mustache-twirling accomplice, Count Fosco (Michael Ball, wearing a fat suit and a music-hall Italian accent).

The physical action (Wayne McGregor is the movement director) feels annotative instead of organic. The show is all big generic set pieces - of discovery and catastrophe and confrontation - that fail to stir because they seem only to further the plot, not define the characters. There's a cold efficiency in both Ms. Jones's streamlining and rearranging of the labyrinthine novel and in Sir Trevor's staging, which keeps the ensemble moving with martial surefootedness on a constantly revolving turntable.

It's not surprising that the performers have little chance of establishing personalities beyond that of decorative chess figurines. As the sybaritic, amoral Fosco, Mr. Ball, in a role created in London by Michael Crawford, certainly has the flashiest part and liveliest songs. But while the only genuinely chilling moments belong to him (as when he kisses an unconscious, drugged Marian on the lips), Fosco is basically a Disney cartoon villain. Since everyone seems robotically programmed, it's especially refreshing when he puts a live white rat on his shoulder for a jaunty number about making crime pay. There is, for a moment, actual suspense, when it looks as if the rat might not respond on cue.

"The Woman in White" has the misfortune to be the second musical slice of Victorian Gothic to open on Broadway in the last several weeks. The first was John Doyle's reconceived staging of "Sweeney Todd," the Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler tale of a homicidal barber. Both shows make a macabre case for there being "no place like London" (to borrow a Sondheim lyric), with nightmarish street scenes of urban hell.

But despite (or perhaps because of) having a much smaller cast, orchestra and stage - and nothing approaching the literal-minded scene-setting of Mr. Dudley's projections - "Sweeney Todd" draws you straight into an anxious fever dream; the songs seem to come from within you. By contrast, "The Woman in White" feels as personally threatening as a historical diorama behind glass. It's not a terrible show, but it's an awfully pallid one. The difference between it and "Sweeney Todd" is the difference between water and blood.

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