I am very grateful to The Woman in White, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new musical, because it gives me another reason to write about Sweeney Todd. It wouldn’t be fair to make too much of the comparison, of course. Stephen Sondheim’s musical is a modern classic, the new revival of which has been slaying my friends and acquaintances like some kind of terrible, wonderful fever. Lloyd Webber’s follow-up to By Jeeves! is an unremarkable night we’ll all forget by Christmas.
Both shows share a novel goal: They attempt to tell a Victorian story of fright and romance without relying on the usual gargantuan machinery of Broadway musicals. But whereas John Doyle stages Sondheim’s masterpiece on a single set—entrusting different backdrops to the little scene shop in every audience member’s head—Trevor Nunn uses high-end technology to project various settings onto a curved rear wall.
That flexible, far-reaching technique seems apt for Wilkie Collins’s story, all gloomy manors and glorious countryside. As the heroic tutor with the bulging forearms professes his love to pretty maiden Laura, or the rapacious Sir Percival Glyde snatches her away, or her virtuous half-sister Marian tries to free her by seducing the bulbous Count Fosco, or the tedious story takes any of its other tedious turns, the projections leap from interior to exterior, countryside to London. The gadgetry promises all sorts of dazzling vistas, but the backdrops here are remarkable mainly for their banality.
How could a story so steeped in Victorian flavor end up so bland? Nunn relies on a revolve at center stage to nudge the action along, so as the murky CGI flickers from one locale to another, the cast devotes a dizzying portion of the evening to loping in circles. The story takes a similar trip to nowhere in particular. Though I tried to develop an interest in the perils of Laura, the heroics of Marian, or the comic bits of Fosco, there was too much twirling, of performers and plot points alike, to grow attached to any of it. Aimlessness is not the show’s flaw—it is its métier.
Amid the high passions that don’t seem all that impassioned, the harrowing thrills that leave the pulse becalmed, and the gloomy fog of deepest Cumberland—which is really the fog of mediocre musical theater—little relief can be found. Every now and then lyricist David Zippel turns a phrase, and Webber unfurls a pretty vocal harmony once or twice, but the score won’t seize my attention. Combine some oppressive miking and the Myst-caliber graphics, and a night at the Marquis starts to resemble a costume drama gone Imax.
Maria Friedman shows great bravery as Marian, if not the charisma needed to anchor the show. It all feels just too thin; even the fat suit Michael Ball wears as Fosco isn’t fat enough. Besides, he sang better and seemed funnier as Bunthorne in Patience at City Opera last month. (Yes, the material had something to do with it.) Ultimately, the show damns itself: The liveliest, most compelling moment of the night comes when Ball sings as a white rat scampers around his shoulders. Cutting-edge tech, $8 million, star creators, and where does the show turn for its most reliable charm? Animal shtick, which was old news when Collins sat down to write a century and a half ago.