Webber's "Woman" is "Phantom" light

- Reuters by Frank Scheck, 18/11/2005 -

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - This new musical from Andrew Lloyd Webber finds the composer returning to the sort of Gothic material that has proved so highly lucrative for him.

Based on the Victorian-era novel by Wilkie Collins, "The Woman in White" features courageous female heroines, ghostly apparitions and dastardly villains in a melodramatic plot accompanied by, what else, lots and lots of singing.

That these ingredients don't jell as successfully here as they did in previous hits like "The Phantom of the Opera" probably won't prevent audiences from turning it into another hit, though the results are far more rarefied than in "Opera," soon to become the longest-running Broadway show ever.

The most intriguing element of director Trevor Nunn's staging is the near eschewing of scenery -- there are but a few pieces of furniture and props littered around the stage -- in favor of elaborate, computerized projections on bare, curving walls. Depicting a wide variety of settings, including an oncoming train that nearly has audience members scattering from their seats, the projections are indeed highly impressive. But the effect, while no doubt financially pleasing for the producers, also can be distancing, like watching a film in which the actors are constantly parading in front of greenscreen effects.

Charlotte Jones' book does a reasonably good job of distilling the novel, though the slim plotline ultimately feels attenuated over the course of three long hours. The story concerns two sisters, Marian (Maria Friedman) and Laura (Jill Paice), the latter of whom marries the abusive Sir Percival Glyde (Ron Bohmer). She ultimately meets a tragic end, one that Marian and her devoted art tutor Walter Hartright (Adam Brazier) attempt to investigate. Other figures on hand include the voluble Count Fosco (Michael Ball) and the mysterious titular character (Angela Christian).

Webber's score, though typically lush and complex, lacks the melodic immediacy of his best work, though it may well gain power over repeated listenings. David Zippel's lyrics are nimble and clever, particularly in such Gilbert and Sullivan-style patter songs as "You Can Get Away With Anything." That number, sung by Ball while he interacts with a sprightly white mouse, is one of the show's major highlights.

Ball, wearing a fat suit and loads of makeup, is a hoot as Fosco and even manages to provide unexpected dramatic shadings to what could have been simply a cartoonish role. Friedman, who recently made headlines with her courageous return to the production shortly after being diagnosed with and treated for breast cancer, is deeply moving as Marian. The rest of the players offer sterling support, with Paice particularly charming as the victimized sister.

With its lack of scenery and less than thrilling score and story, "The Woman in White" inevitably has the feel of "Phantom" lite. But that might be more than enough for audiences hungry for that by-now-rare form of musical theater that isn't jokey or self-reflexive.

Presented by Boyett Ostar Prods., Nederlander Presentations Inc., Sonia Friedman Prods. Ltd., The Really Useful White Company Inc., Lawrence Horowitz/Jon Avnet, Ralp Guild/Bill Rollnick, Bernie Abrams/Michael Speyer and Clear Channel Entertainment.


Marian Halcombe: Maria Friedman

Count Fosco: Michael Ball

Anne Catherick: Angela Christian

Walter Hartright: Adam Brazier

Laura Fairlie: Jill Paice

Sir Percival Glyde: Ron Bohmer

Mr. Fairlie: Walter Charles

Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber; Lyrics: David Zippel; Book: Charlotte Jones; Director: Trevor Nunn; Set/costume/video designer: William Dudley; Lighting designer: Paul Pyant; Sound designer: Mick Potter.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter


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