The Woman in White A New Musical freely adapted from the classic novel by Wilkie Collins. Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Lyrics by David Zippel. Book by Charlotte Jones. Directed by Trevor Nunn. Set, costume and video design by William Dudley. Sound design by Mick Potter. Lighting design by Paul Pyant. Orchestrations by David Cullen. Orchestration supervised by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Musical supervision by Simon Lee. Movement direction by Wayne McGregor. Associate musical supervisor/musical director Kristen Blodgette. Technical supervision by David Benken. Projection realisation and system design by Mesmer-Dick Straker/Sven Ortel. Cast: Maria Friedman, Angela Christian, Adam Brazier, Jill Paice, Ron Bohmer, Walter Charles, and Michael Ball as Count Fosco, with Richard Todd Adams, Justis Bolding, Lisa Brescia, Laura Dekkers, John Dewar, Roger E. DeWitt, Courtney Glass, Patty Goble, Leah Horowitz, Norman Large, Michael Shawn Lewis, Elizabeth Loyacano, Sean MacLaughlin, Daniel Marcus, Greg Mills, Elena Shaddow, Daniel Torres.
In a way, it's hard to not feel sorry for Andrew Lloyd Webber. As unofficial head of the British Invasion, he helped jolt Broadway from its 1980s sleepiness and reinvigorate a musical theatre too often struggled under the weight of skyrocketing ticket prices and languishing creativity. (Thank goodness times have changed!) At several points, he even had three musicals running on Broadway simultaneously - an impressive feat by any standard.
What goes up must come down, however, and Lloyd Webber's success was eventually thwarted by a rejection of the bombastic, essentially humorless, and overblown spectacles he typified. His later attempts at smaller, more human shows didn't ignite box-office fire or audience passions the way Cats and The Phantom of the Opera did once upon a time, and when the theatre turned almost exclusively to revivals, languid movie adaptations, and jukebox musicals for its inspiration, Lloyd Webber was rather unceremoniously dumped on the curb.
But as Lloyd Webber's The Woman in White, which just opened at the Marquis, proves, the composer has finally learned how to fight back. Yes, indeed - he's found a way to insinuate himself back into the public taste with a show that miraculously manages to be completely new while feeling like both a revival and a jukebox musical (if one of 19th-century extraction)! If this show is, for all intents and purposes, a revival of an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical and a jukebox collection of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Greatest Hits (or what sounds like them), does that matter?
Not really. It's impossible to believe that anyone who's seen the florid television commercial, heard the vocally throbbing London cast recording or the ubiquitous CD sampler, or even just seen the blandly picturesque logo won't know exactly what he or she will get with this show. And accordingly, that's what Lloyd Webber and his collaborators - lyricist David Zippel, librettist Charlotte Jones, and director Trevor Nunn - deliver in spades.
They're all ostensibly working from Wilkie Collins's classic Victorian suspense novel, which - a line in the Playbill ominously informs us - they've "freely adapted." The story they tell revolves around two belting half-sisters, both alike in dignity: Marian Halcombe and Laura Fairlie, played by Maria Friedman and Jill Paice (recreating their London roles), quietly in combat for the affections of painter Walter Hartright (Adam Brazier), before Laura's arranged marriage to the deceptively sleazy Sir Percival Glyde (Ron Bohmer) comes to fruition.
Glyde, as he must, has a secret, which revolves around a mysterious white-clad wanderer named Anne Catherick (played here, as in London, by Angela Christian) who haunts the show's Limmeridge, Cumberland, England setting. It doesn't take long for Glyde's true personality to emerge, and when it does, he and his greasy cohort Count Fosco (Michael Ball) strike without mercy to protect themselves, their pocketbooks, and their futures. They're not about to let anyone get in their way.
The same can be said of the show's authors. Jones has diluted much of the novel's story into watery dourness, suggesting rather than capturing the convoluted lives of the souls at the play's center. This atmosphere - which even Ball, giving a solid performance as a near-buffoon, can't easily pierce - isn't clarified by much of the score, which while never unattractive primarily recalls the composer's earlier, sturdier efforts. (There are more than a few whiffs of Phantom, minus that show's darkly intrepid romantic streak, and a few moments obliquely remind of Aspects of Love's roundelay of lust, albeit in a mercifully watered-down fashion.)
But there's no lack of overwrought, pop-opera fixtures: Marian's determined "All for Laura," despite Friedman's fiery rendition, is an anonymous showcase number for any steely female star; "I Believe My Heart" is a syrupy duet of almost deadening obviousness; Walter's second-act "Evermore Without You" is a power ballad so firmly entrenched in Lloyd Webber's singular oeuvre that it would rightly be called derivative if conceived of by anyone else. David Cullen's orchestrations and emphatic conducting by Simon Lee do little to add distinctiveness to the score.
Nor do the performers, a group of usually intriguing personalities forced to suppress most of their own individuality to blend in with their surroundings. Only Bohmer, who pops with unique life from his first seconds onstage, seems to escape this: The villain he creates is textured with an unusual (but hardly unwelcome) brightness that only gradually gives way to his shadowy true self. Friedman and Paice, troopers both, are essentially indistinguishable but for their hair color, though Friedman makes more of her stage time, plowing through her role with a conviction that's admirable but never completely proves why she's the toast of West End musicals. (Her recent offstage drama, about her breast cancer and her indomitable "the show must go on" attitude, gives you a far better idea.)
If Italian music halls exist, Ball would be right at home in one - his performance is ridiculous but restrained, free of the comic histrionics that could too easily infect a role so shticky that its big second-act showpiece climaxes with the help of a live white rat. Practically everyone else, unfortunately including the ever-reliable Walter Charles as Laura and Marian's crotchety uncle, tends to fade into the background.
That's easier to do here than in most musicals, for while Nunn's direction is frequently cunning and clever in melding turgid melodrama with modern stagecraft, the overriding (okay, only) visual concept is the use of projected scenery. Set designer William Dudley (also responsible for costumes and video) has gone all out in defining every location that can possibly appear on the three blank-canvas panels that rotate almost continuously in search of scenic satisfaction.
While this is occasionally effective - as in the use of a pastoral setting in the first act that includes running water - too many effects just look silly, and could be achieved more effectively through simpler means. But that's Lloyd Webber for you: Be it a soaring tire, a crashing chandelier, or a flying mansion, you often get more than you absolutely need. His musicals have always thrived on excess, whether of music, high belting, or scenic design, and to settle for anything less would be more ordinary than even a commonplace entertainment like The Woman in White could bear.
Dudley's work, however, is unquestionably innovative; it feels as new and fresh as the rest of this show does familiar. One might wish for a stronger focus on story and character, but it probably won't be hard for this show's target audience of Lloyd Webber's ardent, unquestioning fans to make that happen by doing some projection of their own.