Talented Brits Wallow in Woman in White

A treat perhaps for Sir Andrew's aficionados

- Star Ledger by Michael Sommers, 18/11/2005 -

NEW YORK -- 'Twas a dark and stormy opening night at the Marquis Theatre as "The Woman in White" swept onto Broadway yesterday, cloaked in a semi-successful West End reputation.

Thunder booms and gloomy tunes resound through composer Andrew Lloyd Webber's convoluted musical melodrama, based on novelist Wilkie Collins' Victorian thriller.

Led by reigning British musical stars Maria Friedman (most appealing in her long-awaited debut) and Michael Ball (who bounces away with the show), a truly luminous company, plus acres of hi-tech design, do their best to scare up such chills as intermittently exist in this foggy and altogether fusty opus.

No need to read the book since Charlotte Jones' adaptation plays loose, if not fast, with the 145-year-old story.

Dwelling in marble halls, Marian (Friedman) is the protective plain-Jane sister of Laura (Jill Paice), a lovely heiress whose long-standing prior engagement thwarts her budding romance with their drawing teacher Walter (Adam Brazier), with whom Marian is smitten anyway.

Laura's marriage soon goes sour as her husband, Sir Percival Glyde (Ron Bohmer), reveals himself as a brute who craves only her fortune.

Abetted by his rascally chum Count Fosco (Ball), Glyde hatches a nefarious scheme -- that shall not be revealed here -- to grab Laura's estate and worse.

A mysterious wraith in trailing white (Angela Christian) proves key to the dastardly doin's as Marian valiantly rushes to her sister's salvation, assisted by heartbroken Walter, himself saved from the gutter by our plucky heroine. Events include a bleak Christmas wedding, a lurid nightmare sequence, a fatal accident complete with funeral, a noisy visit to a madhouse and death on the railroad tracks. Everything is set to virtually nonstop music that's the aural equivalent of flocked wallpaper.

If tracking the machinations of this busy musical doesn't lead to dizziness, the scenery certainly will. The great designer William Dudley projects ceaselessly unspooling animated vistas of landscapes, drawing rooms, graveyards and otherwise Gothic circumstances on curved walls that spin on turntables. The effect suggests being trapped inside a Victorian-themed video game. Although the narrative unfolds entirely on dry land, these swirling visuals may well produce seasickness.

Scarcely tunes from the "Phantom" master's best bin, the music at times swells from general mournfulness into livelier interludes. "I Believe My Heart" is a gently ardent duet. "Lammastide" is a lusty chorus for gamboling villagers. On a single hearing, there doesn't appear to be a now-and-forever number destined for future Lloyd Webber concert revues.

The show's undoubted high point is "You Can Get Away With Anything," Fosco's jaunty waltz about the joys of shameless behavior, warbled by Ball with boundless gusto. Partnered by a rat wriggling across his outstretched arms, Ball drolly provides a welcome diversion. Later, Ball and Friedman expertly navigate a fairly humorous Fosco-Marian seduction scene that blessedly relieves the turbulent action.

Throughout the near-three-hour proceedings, Friedman's emotional fervor and intense musicality propel the ponderous story and score even as Ball's airy presence brightens them. The visiting stars are bolstered by Bohmer's gleaming wickedry as Glyde, Christian's eerie title figure and the lovebird trillings of Paice and Brazier.

An antique "penny-dreadful" thriller blown up into a new $101-dreadful Broadway musical by director Trevor Nunn, "The Woman in White" is best appreciated by Lloyd Webber aficionados and others who thirst for an old-fashioned brew of suds and stress.

Thanks to Doris for finding and sharing

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