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NICE TRY, BUT WE'VE HEARD MOST OF THIS BEFORE
on 12 September 2006
When in September 2001 Andrew Lloyd Webber's latest musical "The Beautiful Game" closed after only a year's run in the West End, people began to wonder has he completely lost his touch. The general opinion was that he needs to get back to the form he knows best: blockbuster productions interwoven with the lush and catchy tunes; a formula that proved magical for the most part of his long career and thus provided him with two of the longest musicals in the history of the theatre (i.e., "Cats" and "The Phantom of the Opera).
Hopes ran high when it was announced that his next project was going to be based on Wilkie Collins' famous novel "The Woman in White". This book was a smash hit after its first release in the 1860-is and its dark, gothic and mysterious story seemed a perfect challenge for a man who demonstrated he can successfully tackle similar subjects, as proven with the Phantom. The show opened in London in September 2004 and will have its American premiere in Chicago this year. Despite the fact the audiences are pouring into the London's Palace theatre to see it, this double CD recording of the show is an utter disappointment for ALW's faithful fans.
The CDs capture most of the show and this is actually the live recording from the opening night performance, with the audience's noises and applauses cut out. The problems of "The Woman in White" stem from several facts. First, there is the score. After listening to it; one can't help but feel you've heard most of these tunes before, in ALW's earlier shows. For the most part he seems to recycle the themes he used in "Aspects of love" in 1989. Thus, the numbers like "I hope you'll like it here", "Perspective", "Trying not to notice it" and "The document" are basically variations on the themes from "Aspects of love". Similarly, one part of "I hope you like it here" has "Gus the theatre cat" from "Cats" all over it. An ensemble song, called "Lammastide" came right out of the trunk of the tunes used in "The Beautiful Game"; it even features the pipes. Furthermore, another pattern from "Aspects of love" was used here: setting the dialogue to music. This, in turn, means that there are only few real songs here. All of the numbers I mentioned above could work much better by being spoken and there was no point at all in putting them to music. The real musical numbers are scarce and, what's even worse, trivial. One of them, "I believe my heart", sounds much better as a single released in the pop form, than as the part of the show. Again, on this recording it sounds too plain and dull; nowhere near the melodies ALW composed in the past. Pretty much can be said for the most of the songs here: they will make you yawn your way through both acts, except perhaps the nicely tuned "the Woman in White" leitmotiv and a Maria Friedman's moving rendition of "All for Laura" But for the most part, if it's not dialogue set to music, then we have tedious melodies with no appeal at all. Final judgment: The score is quite weak and repetitive.
On the other hand, the story, set in 1860-is, does have some potential. Some things have been changed, but the basic plot of the book is retained on the stage. We follow a young drawing teacher Walter Hartright, who is on his way to Cumberland to become an art tutor to two half-sisters, Marian Halcombe and Laura Farlie. Before he gets to his destination, Walter has a chilling encounter on a foggy train station with the mysterious young woman, all dressed in white. She is desperate to share her secret with someone. When he finally meets the two sisters, Walter is amazed how much one of them, Laura, resembles to the woman in white. After a while, Laura and Walter fall in love, but she is already promised to a young aristocrat, Sir Percival Glyde. Marian, herself keen on Walter, is determined that Laura should marry Glyde so the two of them could have a secure future. Before she sends Walter away, he has another encounter with the woman in white, who warns him Laura mustn't marry Glyde under any circumstances. Marriage does take place and Marian finds out too late that Glyde was only after Laura's money. With the help of the mysterious woman in white's secret, Marian and Walter now must work together to save Laura from the evil plan Glyde has formed. Besides the mystery of the secret in question, we are also intrigued by Glyde's charming Italian friend, count Fosco. Is he, with his unusual taste in white mice, vanilla bonbons and poison, a friend or a foe? Overall, the story has its merits, since when listening to the recording you really want to find out what is the big secret. Hence, the plot is the only thing that really occupies one's attention here.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the cast; they seem to match the triteness of the score. The trouble is that no one of the principal singers really sticks out. Maria Friedman, who likes to be thought of as a current big name in the West End, lacks a good vocal power. Her voice is at times too thin at the lover tones and when it tries to reach highs it becomes unpleasantly husky. The rest, Martin Crewes, Jill Paice and Oliver Darley, are nothing special. Only one name is of the top quality here and that is Michael Crawford, the man who rose to stardom by being the first and overall the best Phantom in "The Phantom of the Opera". His tenor hasn't lost any of the charms it had during the time he wore the Phantom's mask. However, his potential remains vastly unused here. First, the role of count Fosco is only a supporting one and second; the tunes Crawford sings are too banal. His big number, "You can get away with anything", especially its opening night version at the end of disc two, will make you laugh for sure, but the music itself is boring. Still, the way Crawford plays this interesting character is one of the rare highlights on this recording.
David Zippel's lyrics are not strong enough to cover up the leaks of the score. They sound predictable and for the most part do not develop the characters involved. The CD package comes with the full libretto and a couple of production photos.
So in the end, "The Woman in white" comes as a sort of a cold shower. As much as I am a big fan of his work, I believe "The Woman in White" should have turned out much better. Perhaps the revised version that recently opened on Broadway has some improvements, but this London cast recording remains flat in most of its aspects. One thing is certain: Andrew Lloyd Webber's artistic future is very questionable if he carries on at this rate. I can only hope that he will manage to find the muse of the musicals that inspired him for a long time during the past.
"You can get away with anything", sings Michael Crawford in his big number. Alas, I am not too sure that Andrew Lloyd Webber can get away with this one.