by Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.
The Woman In White--a so-called musical
By Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed by Trevor Nunn
West 46th Street
Buy "The Woman in White" Tickets
Reviewed January 23, 2006 by Margaret Croyden
Andrew Lloyd Webber has tried to write an opera disguised as a musical. But "The Woman In White" is neither opera nor musical. One ingredient necessary for either form is music. This Lloyd Webber has forsworn. Not that he didn't try, but this time he not even come close. I cannot remember one single song. What the famous composer has done is rely on a gothic plot and silly rhymes to relay a convoluted story.
The story (akin to "Perils of Pauline") is about two sisters, one beautiful; the other, homely; one innocent, the other jealous; one abused; the other; a fixer. And their "perils" -- mistaken identity, family secrets, abused women, illegitimate children, and a dastardly, violent villain, who marries the innocent beauty only to abuse and rob her. And his secret--the point of the story--he has seduced and abandoned a country girl (who turns out to be the woman in white), and drowned her baby. And then there is his side kick, a fat Falstaff type ( Michael Ball), an unscrupulous man about town, who believes he has a "gift for living well" the only song that brought a response from the audience. But in the end he is as wicked as his friend. And we must not forget the righteous hero, the lowly arts teacher hired to teach the girls drawing, and has who fallen in love with the innocent sister, but he is driven away for daring to expose the awful truth. But you know, in the end, he will win the girl and fix everything.
One of the problems of this kind of production is that the company has no uniform manner of playing gothic horror. Perhaps if they had satirized, or added a sense of irony to the abominable text "freely adapted from the novel by Wilkie Collins" (reads the program), the drama might have held one's interest. But the main problem is that for a musical, it has no music, not one memorable song, which, in the past, Lloyd Webber has usually managed to crank out. Instead there are a group of stereotypes. Maria Friedman who plays the lead, the homely sister, and supposedly the star of the production is surprisingly ordinary, with an unremarkable voice and an unimpressive acting style. And the villain (Ron Bohmer)--well, he is "the" villain from the moment he enters. And the naive, beautiful sister (Angela Christian) is what you would expect: blond, thin, and beautiful. As for the woman in white, the ghost-like girl running around the stage and disappearing into the scenery each time sings (if you call it that) in a squeaky, baby voice and garbled diction. Her role is to elucidate the mystery in the play since she is the woman in white, but her inaudible voice and poor diction only added to the confusion.
I was particularly disappointed in Trevor Nunn, the director, whom I knew from his early days at the Royal Shakespeare Theater in Stratford. Nunn has had a terrific career, directing the entire Shakespeare cannon, as well as dozens of other dramas. Although he has managed to keep "The Woman In White" moving, I can't imagine why this work interested him. Maybe he was intrigued by the remarkable 3D projections--not often seen on stage to this extent--that rapidly rolled across each scene, shifting to every room in the mansion where the action takes place. We saw the total environment--the gardens, the waterfalls, the shrubbery--every imaginable sight surrounding the estate was there. And this was dazzling. But after a while, it was tiresome and distracting. The setup became the star of the production, and one became overly conscious of the brilliant technology so that the rest of the production paled.
This kind of showmanship did not save the evening, nor enhance the story, nor leave one with an important experience. It was the whipped creme on the cake but the cake was missing. I do wish Nunn would give up these musicals, already, and direct real drama that is badly needed these days. As for Lloyd Webber--stop with these pretentious extravaganzas that go nowhere.
Margaret Croyden's most recent book "Conversations With Peter Brook, 1970-2000" is published by Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.
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