Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Unmasked: The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber
The stage is framed by four goalpost scaffolds, with two moveable scaffold staircases with platforms at the top level. To the rear, the orchestra is seated on a raised, scaffolded platform. As the performance begins, the talented young cast dressed mostly in black is seated with their backs to the audience watching a large digital video screen showing Lloyd Webber, who is in the process of introducing the evening.
In this, the first of an extensive series of video commentaries, Lloyd Webber indicates that he will take us behind the scenes to reveal hidden truths concerning his creative output. Although Lloyd Webber does prove to be a most entertaining and convivial anecdotal guide with whom to spend the evening, I still wish that he would have taken us more deeply into his confidence. He makes little mention of his methodology, his interaction with his collaborators, or why he has chosen to work with an array of different lyricists. (His stories about Sarah Brightman are largely limited to his not knowing whether she would want to work with him after their divorce.) At his best, Lloyd Webber provides fascinating lessons in music composition which he illustrates with demonstrations on the piano.
Although the music is not performed in chronological order (Lloyd Webber informs us that he finds the "and then I wrote" approach to be boring), there are multiple song segments each devoted singly to one of his most popular musicals. All of each character's songs are performed by the same cast member, and the staging suggests the context. Although these segments are described as "medleys" in the program (and they may well be by definition), each song is essentially sung through.
On opening night, the performance felt like an unfinished work in progress as the songs and segments veered widely between high and low points, with the final segment careening off the track.
The evening gets off to a shaky start with an overly arranged, overly amplified a cappella medley of conjoined song titles. While it gives the cast the opportunity to display their considerable vocal skills, it is harshly and unpleasantly amplified. It might be more pleasing if it could be performed unamplified, but it is unnecessary as the cast has the entire evening to display its musicality.
The next segment features songs from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Jesus Christ Superstar, culminating in a thrilling, powerful version of "Gethsemane" sung by Mauricio Martinez in an impassioned extreme bravura style which captures the existential agony of its music and lyrics.
A solid presentation of Evita follows, highlighted by the plaintive interpretations of Alex Finke ("Another Suitcase in Another Hall) and Mamie Parris ("Don't Cry for Me, Argentina").
Next, Unmasked breaks the glass ceiling on concert musicals and the like. Credit director-choreographer Joanne M. Hunter, devisor/co-author Richard Curtis, Lloyd Webber sharing with us "the magic of mathematics in music", cellist Marta Bagratuni brilliantly soloing on a Webber classical variation, and Alyssa Giannetti gorgeously singing "Unexpected Song" (from Tell Me on a Sunday) for a self-contained musical theatre segment that is intellectually and emotionally fully satisfying.
A "love medley" features three songs from three separate musicals: "Love Changes Everything" (Aspects of Love); "Take That Look Off Your Face" (Tell Me on a Sunday); and the title song from Love Never Dies.
Lloyd Webber tells us that a good book can save a show with poor music, but good music cannot save a show with a poor book by way of introducing the first act closer, a medley from Cats, the exception to the rule. I do think he might have mentioned the immense contribution of choreographer Gillian Lynne. However, the impact of the Cats medley is slight, as the editing, staging and arrangements do not enable us to follow the charming stories related in the T.S. Eliot poems.
Act two opens with a new, slight, but amusing new song, "Here We Are on Broadway," which finds T.S. Eliot and various personages from Lloyd Webber musicals ranging from Jesus to Evita noting that they are happier being with Lloyd Webber musicals than they were in their previous lives.
During the Sunset Boulevard "medley," the very difficult to perform title song (its music is primarily a powerful dramatic piece for orchestra) is sung with strength, clarity, and dramatic power by Jeremy Landon Hays. Rema Webb is a softly lyrical Norma Desmond.
Next up is a melodious Spanish-style ballad written by Lloyd Webber for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Unfathomably, Hunter has chosen to combine the singing of this relatively less familiar song while a plethora of photographs chronicling Lloyd Webber's life are streamed across the stage, forcing the audience to make an ongoing choice as to whether to listen to the song or view the photographs. To add insult to injury, the cast is then spread across the stage with their backs to the audience blocking a large portion of the latter from being able to view the pictures. Alyssa Giannetti, Amy Justman, Jeremy Landon Hayes, and Mauricio Martinez blend their voices beautifully on this song.
Lloyd Webber makes a case for Love Never Dies, expressing his sense that it didn't get a fair shake because critics were resistant to a Phantom sequel. In support of its viability, Bronson Norris Murphy as the Phantom sings its "Till I Hear You Sing." and Alex Finke sings "Pie Jesu" from Requiem after Webber shares the deep feelings which inspired him in its composition
The last segment before the finale is a Phantom of the Opera medley. Alyssa Giannetti is fine as Christine. Bronson Norris Murphy as the Phantom generally sings well, but he did appear to have some vocal problems at this performance. Although the songs are generally well sung, there are instances where a song begins at such a high bravura pitch that there is no place left for the song to go other than over the top. Some of the material falls short of full satisfaction because, by its nature, it calls for a more charismatic performance to fully shine. Before the final song scheduled to be sung from Phantom, the other members of the company block Murphy's attempts to start singing. They then sing with vigorous anger that he should not sing "that [I could swear I heard an expletive] song." However, Murphy persists in his effort and proceeds to sing "The Music of the Night." Although I can only assume that humor was intended here, in the performance of it, I found nothing amusing or appropriate.
Lloyd Webber tells us that he always liked and respected rock 'n' roll, as an introduction to the finale. Then, the cast, in support of Andrew Kober's lead solo, sing the real song that nobody wants to hear, "Stick It to the Man," from Lloyd Webber's newest musical School of Rock. This song might well work in the context of the show for which it was written, but with its insistent repetition of the title phrase, it is clearly not a song to please audiences who have chosen to spend two hours in the theatre listening to the composer's sophisticated oeuvre of theatre and classical music. To make matters worse, while the cast is loosely dancing about the stage to the beat, Kober suddenly beings to call out the name of each cast member for what proves to be the final bows. This leads to unfocused, somewhat scattered applause. In a flash, the song ends and the show is over without the audience having the pleasure of truly acknowledging its appreciation and pleasure for the talent and effort of performers who have worked so hard to entertain us.
Work remains to be done for this show to fulfill its potential. However, the unusual format of Unmasked is clearly viable. And it would be wrong to lose sight of the fact that Unmasked already offers a considerable quantity of surefire, quality entertainment.
Unmasked: The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber runs through March 1, 2020, at Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn NJ. Evenings: Wednesday, Thursday 7:30 p.m.; Friday, Saturday 8 pm; Sunday 7 p.m. Matinees: Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays 1:30 p.m. For tickets and information, call the box office at 973-376-4343 or visit www.papermill.org.
Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber
Cast: (in alphabetical order): Nicholas Edwards, Alex Finke, Alyssa Giannetti, Kara Haller, Jeremy Landon Hays, Amy Justman, Andrew Kober, Angel Lozada, Mauricio Martinez, Bronson Norris Murphy, Mamie Parris, Dave Schoonover, Rema Webb