Though The Woman in White divided critics (and audiences, too, if the opinions on the User Reviews here are a guide) when it first opened last September, my admiration for it has grown stronger with each seeing and, especially, hearing. And I've now been four times in all.
Yet I can also appreciate that it's not for everyone - it will be very interesting to see how Broadway takes to its first sighting of an original Andrew Lloyd Webber musical since Sunset Boulevard opened there over a decade ago, when The Woman in White opens at the Marquis Theatre.
This is one of LLoyd Webber's most daringly ambitious but slowly insinuating shows, too, in which his densely woven score has a near-operatic sweep and fervour that perfectly complements the unfolding of a Victorian, romantically melodramatic potboiler that it is set to.
Trevor Nunn's production has now been almost entirely re-cast since its first opened (only Edward Petherbridge remains of the original principals), but it has also been fine-tuned. The dazzling, sometimes dizzying, set projections of William Dudley appear to have calmed down somewhat - and very usefully, the early mimed walk-up-the-stairs that provoked titters before has been dropped. Added in are some more substantial set pieces, such as a tree, that's flown in, while a brand-new ending has also been introduced.
The new company is mostly excellent, too. While Ruthie Henshall - replacing Maria Friedman as Marian Halcombe, as Friedman recreates her original performance on Broadway - finally gets to test her dramatic mettle as well as her already well-known comedic abilities from such shows as Crazy for You and She Loves Me, she projects a powerful personality and even more powerful voice as she sets about righting the wrong done to her sister Laura (Alexandra Silber in a brilliant post-drama school debut).
Taking over from Martin Crewes as the art tutor turned love interest of both Marian and Laura, fellow Oz-trained Damian Humbley is a vocally powerful Walter Hartright, and yet another Australian-originated performer Michael Cormick is attractively dastardly as Sir Percival Glyde.
It's only Simon Callow as Glyde's sidekick Count Fosco who fails to hit the right notes, literally so. Though he assumes the character with typical flourish, he simply cannot perform the songs. He may have the get-out of a song that has him claiming, "No opera star/my voice is thin", but this nevertheless has to be one of the most awful singing performances in living memory in the West End. Following in the footsteps of the Michaels Crawford and Ball, the comparison is even more shocking. Take your earplugs.
- Mark Shenton
Note: The following FOUR-STAR review dates from September 2004 and this production's original West End cast.
One Trevor Nunn-directed period musical has been exchanged for another at the Palace Theatre. After Les Miserables, a musical based on Victor Hugo’s 1861 Parisian novel of revolution and obsession that ran there for some 18 years, we now have a startling and vividly inhabited adaptation of Wilkie Collins’ novel written just a year before.
You can see why Nunn and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber - who previously scored The Phantom of the Opera, based on a 1910 novel by Gaston Leroux - were attracted to The Woman in White. They’ve landed upon another intricately layered gothic plot in which lovers head tortuously towards their destinies, against a swirling backdrop of colourful characters with mysterious motivations.
It draws out Lloyd Webber’s best and most melodically textured score since Phantom, but because it’s largely through-sung, also has to propel both plot and character. This results in inevitable stretches of plot-setting recitation, particularly early on, but Lloyd Webber hasn’t stinted on spectacular ballads. There’s one of absolute classic here in “Ever More Without You”, for which American lyricist David Zippel has crafted poetic words with emotion and skill.
As with Les Mis, there’s lots to keep up with in the telescoping (by playwright Charlotte Jones) of Collins’ dense mystery novel into a three-hour musical that revolves around the crisis three women face in their dealings with the dastardly Sir Percival Glyde and his comically corpulent accomplice Count Fosco, the latter complete with a menagerie of birds (one of whom unhappily escaped its cage on press night) and rats.
Critics have been asked not to reveal the source of the mystery at the heart of the piece, but the main mystery that preoccupied me was why the producers have gone to the expense of hiring Michael Crawford to play Fosco and then buried him unrecognisably in a fat suit and face. They could have had Christopher Biggins and saved on the transformation effects. But it does mean that Crawford gets to perform a big number with a rodent for the second time in his career (after the short-lived 1979 musical Flowers for Algernon).
There’s more nuance and vivacity to the trilogy of women, whom Maria Friedman and American actresses Jill Paice (as her half-sister who marries Glyde) and Angela Christian (in the title role) beautifully embody. Friedman provides the absolute heartbeat (and blazing vocal fireworks) of the piece, while Martin Crewes is square-jawed and handsome as the sisters’ art tutor who becomes the object of both of their desires.
Of William Dudley’s revolutionary design – expanding on a technique he’s already used for Nunn’s National Theatre production of Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia that mainly employs ever-changing projections onto a cyclorama – opinion is surely going to be divided. There are times when it’s so busy you want to reach for the Dramamine motion sickness tablets, but it’s also exciting to be whisked, computer-game style, from location to location in the blink of an eye.
Still, it’s the fine musical tapestry of Lloyd Webber’s score and Friedman’s tremendous performance that ultimately makes this journey worth travelling, whether you need the tablets or not.
- Mark Shenton