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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Woman in White
Palace Theatre          2004 - 2006

The new Andrew Lloyd Webber musical will be a hit and will please lots of people. I doubt that it will run as long as Cats or that any of its songs will become classics like those of Phantom. It's good, in short, but it's not great.

The Wilkie Collins book on which it is based is a typically complex 19th-century page-turner. Briefly, the title character is a mysterious stranger who closely resembles an heiress and is used by the bad guys in a plot to steal her fortune. Allied against them are the poor-but-honest guy who loves the heiress and her spunky sister.

Good triumphs in the end, of course, though at some cost, and those who know the novel will find that the last third of the musical's book by Charlotte Jones deviates most from the original, reaching the more-or-less happy ending by a different route.

But what you really want to know is what the music is like and how Maria Friedman and Michael Crawford are in the leads.

Well, one problem with the show is that there is lots and lots of plot to get through in the first half, and the decision to make it sung-through means that there's lots of recitatif, sung dialogue that never quite breaks into actual melody.

By the time we finally get to the big love song, 'I Believe My Heart', the audience is so hungry for a lush Lloyd Webber melody that they greet it rapturously, even though it is really a rather generic tune with weak lyrics from David Zippel, who is better in the more comic songs.

The hero's second-act solo, 'Evermore Without You', is a stronger song, and a duet for the hero and sister, 'If Not For Me For Her', has a lovely melody if (once again) weak lyrics. The sister also has a big dramatic first act solo, 'All for Laura', that is a bit too Les Mis-ish.

(My more musically knowledgeable colleague complained that most of the first-act orchestrations, by ALW and David Cullen, have a somewhat dated '80s sound to them, and also noted that both the orchestrations and the performance style - they suddenly start speaking dialogue rather than half-singing it - change in Act II.)

The two stars play, respectively, the sister and the comic second-string villain, and therein lies one of the dramatic problems with both the novel and the play - the lovers and the chief baddy are rather insipid characters and not really very interesting.

This is no criticism of Martin Crewes, Jill Paice or Oliver Darley, who do what they can with what they're given - but we keep having to turn from them to the peripheral cast for entertainment.

Maria Friedman as the sister carries much of the dramatic burden, not just in her songs but in being the more active agent in the attempt to save both her sister and the woman in white, while the musical also gives her an unrequited love for the hero as an added complexity.

Friedman is one of the West End's strongest singing actresses and does not disappoint, and she also has opportunities at the beginning and near the end of the show to demonstrate a flair for light comedy.

Michael Crawford, on the other hand, is burdened not only with a role just about any competent comic actor could play but also a fat suit and loads of facial foam rubber that make him even less recognizable than he was as the Phantom.

As a silly but presumably all-the-more-sinister-for-that foreigner, he gets to mince about, exult in his gormandising and imagine himself irresistible.

He gets a big scene to himself near the end, congratulating himself in a Gilbert-and-Sullivan-type song called 'You Can Get Away With Anything', and follows it with a comic seduction scene in which Friedman toys with him in order to steal an essential document.

He even gets to reprise the dance-with-a-trained-mouse bit he first did three decades ago in Flowers for Algernon.

Special mention must be given to William Dudley's design, a continuous series of computer-generated video projections on a curved screen that not only create realistic interiors and landscapes but move with the characters to give a 360 degree view around them.

While the older and more cynical amongst us might note that this is just Cinerama raised to a higher level, I will admit that occasionally I wished all those people onstage would get out of the way and let me just enjoy the view.

And I suppose that says something about Trevor Nunn's direction, which keeps things moving, but never gives us much worth looking at.

You'll go. You'll enjoy it. And, unless they plug the songs mercilessly on the radio, you'll forget it pretty quickly. And that is less than we want from ALW.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  The Woman In White - Palace Theatre 2004