The Woman in White
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 20, 2005
Even the most skillful and successful of theatre hands sometimes go to the well of inspiration and come up dry. If proof is needed, let The Woman in White serve as Exhibit A: although its credentials are impeccably impressive—an Andrew Lloyd Webber score, David Zippel (City of Angels) on lyrics, and the great Trevor Nunn (Les Miserables, Nicholas Nickleby, Cats) at the helm—this is a decidedly lackluster effort. It's diverting enough in its way, but it's resolutely uninspired; if you arrive at the theatre expecting the likes of The Phantom of the Opera or even Sunset Boulevard you're going to be disappointed. (If you go expecting the likes of Jane Eyre or Jekyll and Hyde, however, then you'll probably be okay.)
You may be familiar with the source material, a novel by Wilkie Collins written in 1860; I wasn't. The story begins at a railway station in the middle of the English countryside, where a signalman encounters our hero, Walter Hartright (who has just arrived from London) and predicts dire tragedy for him. Almost immediately after, Walter sees a woman in white—is she real, or is she a ghost?—who appears to be fearful and in flight; she has a secret, she tells Walter, but she cannot disclose it now.
Hartright has come to this part of England to teach drawing to Laura Fairlie and Marian Halcombe, half-sisters who live on an estate with their uncle and a barrage of servants. Laura is beautiful, bright, blonde, and heiress to a large fortune; Marian is plain, self-effacing, brunette, and without an inheritance—she's resigned herself to living in Laura's shadow. Both women are instantly taken with their handsome young instructor, and he (naturally) falls in love with the luminous Laura.
However, Laura is engaged to be married to Sir Percival Glyde, a devilish fellow who, we are immediately certain, is only interested in Laura for her money. Laura, though unsuspecting, is not in love with Glyde, but her uncle is adamant about the match, and Marian is, too; the plan is for the two to wed right away, with Marian moving away with them to Glyde's home in Hampshire, leaving the curmudgeonly old man Fairlie alone in peace.
Glyde's best pal, one Count Fosco, turns up—he's a fat man with gluttonous appetites and a zest for living well that belies his apparent lack of any means of support. He becomes interested in Marian. It's clear from the outset that he's more than a bounder, and in on Glyde's wicked machinations.
Walter comes upon his Woman in White again, and she confides that it is none other than Glyde who is the source of her miseries. She turns out to have a name—Anne Catherick—and a history with the Fairlie household. Walter tries to stop Laura's marriage, but to no avail; in fact, he is ordered away by Marian, who may have reasons of her own for not wanting to see him again.
And then the plot really starts to heat up and get complicated.
It is, as Lady Bracknell might have said, a story crowded with incident; it compels from its very first breath and never lets go, in fact—if we don't exactly lean forward eagerly, we are constantly curious as to how the busy plot will work itself out. Someone is murdered, someone is falsely imprisoned in an insane asylum, money is stolen and gambled and lost, intrigues abound, and of course there's that central mystery of who is the Woman in White and what is the secret she possesses. Yet, as a musical it never quite ignites, and I think I know why.
Take a look at the best Lloyd Webber musicals: Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, The Phantom of the Opera. At the center of each is a title character driven—obsessed—with a passion for something. Glory. Fame. Love. Vengeance. Big emotions that make them sing. But the star role in The Woman in White is not Anne Catherick but rather Marian Halcombe, whose objective is... to take care of her sister. When your big character-defining number is "All for Laura" instead of "All for Me" (vis., "Buenos Aires," "Gethesemane," "The Music of the Night"), then you're just not holding your own in the pantheon of interesting leading characters in a musical. Marian, a dutiful and shrewd woman in post-Jane Austen style, goes by the numbers to accomplish what she has to do; but her spirit never soars and her soul never sings.
So Maria Friedman, a most engaging and lovely leading lady, has little to do as Marian, and a potentially triumphant Broadway debut is sadly squandered as a result. Michael Ball, her co-star, is stuck inside Count Fosco's fat suit; showiness aside, it's a very small role, and even though Lloyd Webber and Zippel have fashioned for him a would-be eleven o'clock number called "You Can Get Away With Anything" (sort of an upper-class take on Fagin's "Reviewing the Situation" from Oliver!), it's hardly the stuff of a bona fide star turn. (Ball is, nonetheless, spectacularly good—hands down the most interesting and lively presence in the show.)
Earnest lovers Laura (Jill Paice) and Walter (the dashing Adam Brazier) are, well, earnest; they get the show's big love song, "I Believe My Heart," which is very much bargain-basement Lloyd Webber (Forbidden Broadway's Gerard Alessandrini must be thrilled to have something so easily parodied to put into his next show). Ron Bohmer clearly has fun as Sir Percival Glyde, a villain straight out of 1800s melodrama. Angela Christian, in the title role, has little to do but speak some portentous dialogue in a very thick English accent and look distressed.
Propelling, quite literally, the frenzied story is an innovative but ultimately unsuccessful production design by William Dudley. Based on the notion of a diorama, the set consists of projections on a curved rear wall and on several moving pieces of scenery which become backdrops/backgrounds for the action. When it works, this high-tech method (which simulates 3-D and other visual effects) is both beautiful and nifty: for exteriors, such as a lovely series of scenes in which Marian and Laura go off into the countryside to draw for their new teacher Walter, this is a boon for stage design. But interiors, of which there are many, are fuzzy and unfocused—they just lack the precision and detail that an actual live piece of wall or furniture would carry. More troublingly, the synchronization of the projections with the live action (of actors and scenery) sometimes misfired at the performance reviewed: this technology just doesn't seem to actually work right, at least not yet. This is, however, a genuinely interesting development in production design and is worth further investigation. It's the most singular aspect of The Woman of White.
In contrast, Trevor Nunn's staging, which echoes Les Miserables far too frequently with its turntables full of rabble rushing out to sing to us, is derivative and dull. While Lloyd Webber provides lots of pretty melodies and Zippel offers (especially on the lighter songs) some clever lyrics, Nunn appears to have come up fairly empty in the inspiration department.
Ultimately, The Woman in White works in spite of itself; these men are pros, after all, and even if they haven't come close to equaling their own prior theatrical achievements here, their instincts and talents are such that they're unlikely to come entirely a cropper. But I was disappointed: I was all ready for a lush romantic musical to lose myself inside of, but though there's plenty of action to engage us in The Woman in White, there's ultimately precious little to get excited about.