The Woman in White is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s first new musical to reach Broadway in 11 years and it’s great fun. The glorious musical predictability of its score is as reassuring as is its hokey dramatic structure involving blackmail, secret siblings, and dark family secrets. As an easy-reader version of Wilkie Collins’s pot-boiling gothic Victorian mystery romance, it plays out like a cross between a wide-screen 3-D film, a pop-up styled Classics Illustrated Comic Book and a Zoetrope peep show. In keeping with his fearlessly saccharine musical style, and his almost recklessly familiar brand of melodic recycling, Lord Webber has, nevertheless, commendably concocted a thoroughly enjoyable piece of era-evoking clap trap. That the production’s incessantly moving panoramic projections spread across a huge curved screen are never in conflict with the action on stage is a miracle of ingenuity.
The production’s aggressive deployment of endlessly scanning scenic effects, superbly conceived and executed by William Dudley (also responsible for the gorgeous costuming) may prove a slight distraction to some. Once the viewer makes the adjustment to the constant motion (pass the Dramamine, please), the musical plows full steam ahead to its satisfyingly romantic finish. The melodramatic climax, in which a speeding train rushes toward us through a dense fog, is in keeping with Webber’s inclination toward the spectacular. The effect is awesome and ever so more chilling that that famously falling chandelier in Phantom or even Norma Desmond’s mannerisms in Sunset Boulevard. One quickly adjusts to the roaming views of often breathtaking out of doors vistas, dark and grimy street scenes, and the obligatory gloomy and forbidding interior of Limmeridge House.
Yes, you will come out remembering the principal musical motifs, primarily those with echoes of Phantom. One number "Lammastide," a villagers folk dance, sounds suspiciously like the Macarena, showcasing some rather lamentable choreography (no credit is given) that barely aspires to the level of that faddish party dance. Yet, there is little point in poking fun at Webber’s musical gifts, as redundantly banal as they may sound to the more discriminating ear. One needs only to think of Webber as the western world’s contemporary answer to Sigmund Romberg. That’s not so bad a tribute considering the competition. Such ballads as "Never More Without You," and "I Believe My Heart," are as melodically comforting as are "Lost Souls" and "The Nightmare" conventionally disquieting.
The dramatic elements, under Trevor Nunn’s fluid direction are as vividly realized as is the turgid text, succinctly adapted by Charlotte Jones from the popular novel. Although the 1860 novel is probably not on most fondly remembered novels list, the excellent 1948 film version starring Eleanor Parker, Alexis Smith, Gig Young, Sidney Greenstreet, and Agnes Moorehead is shown periodically on the Turner Classic Movies channel. Jones has taken the necessary liberties with the archaic prose but also brings the story’s essentials to a generally satisfying conclusion. The somewhat plodding exposition that propels Act I is off-set by the hair-raising melodramatics that drive Act II. However, the musical could have benefited from closer psychological scrutiny of the main characters.
Enough has been written about the leading lady Maria Friedman’s courage and fortitude to perform on opening night only days after having breast surgery for cancer. One can only report that Friedman deserves accolades not only for being a trouper, but for giving a performance that inspires accolades. As the melancholy, misguided and spirited Marion Halcombe, Friedman sings with a resounding vibrancy that genuinely informs her conflicted character. Her big emotionally stirring aria "All for Laura" sung near the end of Act I, assures her a Tony nomination. Matching her as a formidable stage presence is Michael Ball, as the comically diabolical Count Fosco, whose villainy sparkles through his podgy and nimble countenance in every scene in which he appears. His attempted seduction of Marion is a highlight, as is his show-stopping aria "A Gift for Living Well," during which an upstaging white mouse scurries up and down his arm. Ball’s enlivening performance will also be remembered by the Tony nominating committee.
Angela Christian is appropriately and affectingly unhinged as Anne Catherick, the eerily secretive and tormented title character. Usually appearing and disappearing in a white shroud, the ghostly ailing Anne serves as the catalyst for the three-way romantics that involve Marion, her half sister Laura Fairlie (played by a luminous Jill Paice) and their comely drawing instructor Walter Hartright (Adam Brazier). Brazier has a field day going from dashing suitor to a vagrant in the depths of despair and back again always in excellent voice. The convoluted plot that also finds Laura’s unctuously charming and scheming husband Sir Percival Glyde (Ron Bohmer) in cahoots with the surly Mr. Fairlie (Walter Charles), invites our hisses. Most audiences, however, will undoubtedly find themselves moved to cheers.
The Woman in White, Marquis Theater, 211 West 45th Street. $100 to $125 with golden circle tickets $250. 212-307-4100.