Woman puts on a brave show

- USA today by Elysa Gardner, 21/11/2005-

Marian Halcombe, the plucky heroine of Andrew Lloyd Webber's new musical The Woman in White ( * * out of four ), is duped, drugged, attacked by strangers and rejected for her younger, prettier half-sister.

But old Marian has nothing on Maria Friedman, the British stage star who introduced her across the Atlantic and is now playing her on Broadway. Shortly before Woman opened at the Marquis Theatre on Thursday, Friedman was diagnosed with an early stage of breast cancer and had surgery. At previews, she was bruised, bandaged and literally had a doctor waiting in the wings.

Yet at the performance I attended Saturday night — and at earlier shows, from what I've heard — Friedman sang and acted with a vivacity and generosity that transcended that old the-show-must-go-on truism. Whether skipping girlishly in a moment of glee or delivering a heartbroken confession, her Marian was completely authentic and seldom less than inspiring.

I wish I could say the same for Woman itself, which Lloyd Webber, lyricist David Zippel and librettist Charlotte Jones "freely adapted" from the Victorian novel of the same name by Wilkie Collins. With its syrupy songs and its tale of fair young women who fall under the sway of menacing men, Woman might be called Phantom Lite .

Woman does boast Lloyd Webber's most accessible score since The Phantom of the Opera . Tunes such as All for Laura , Marian's song of devotion to her half-sibling, and I Believe My Heart , the treacly love theme of Laura and her art teacher, male ingénue Walter Hartright, will attach themselves to you like fungi.

There are more upbeat numbers as well, among them the jaunty I Hope You'll Like It Here . Count Fosco, a stock Italian villain in a fat suit, sings You Can Get Away with Anything , a lighthearted ditty that vaguely recalls La donna è mobile from Rigoletto . Perhaps those who have accused Lloyd Webber of ripping off Puccini will be impressed that he can nod to Verdi as well.

Michael Ball clearly has a ball as Fosco, while Ron Bohmer is convincingly loutish as his partner in crime and Laura's abusive husband. Jill Paice and Adam Brazier look pretty and sing sweetly as Laura and her true love, Walter, and Angela Christian imbues the title character with a haunting, if sometimes shrill, urgency.

But there's little doubt who the true star of this production is. The next time I have to work through a migraine, I will think of Maria Friedman and quit whining.

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