At the start of “The Woman in White,” designer William Dudley zooms in, within a projection of a roomful of Victorian clutter, on a zoetrope, a quaint relic that provides a rudimentary moving image long since superseded by more sophisticated forms of visual storytelling. Similar limitations apply to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s first new musical to open on Broadway since “Sunset Boulevard” 11 years ago. The composer’s customarily lush, faux-operatic 1980s musical idiom feels like a throwback, while the emotion, mystery and romance of the Wilkie Collins potboiler is consistently dwarfed by the mechanical artificiality of the design concept.
There is good news, however. Trevor Nunn’s production is now considerably tighter (and almost a half-hour shorter) than the staging that opened in London last fall. And while they still call to mind a walking tour of historic Britain as reimagined by a PlayStation designer, Dudley’s CGI projections have at least been stabilized so they no longer provide the kind of nerve-jarring experience that would make the novel’s valetudinarian Mr. Fairlie wince.
The show also boasts two persuasive performances of very different stripes. Revealing herself to be a valiant trooper by stepping back into her role in time for opening night after only the briefest of absences for emergency breast cancer surgery, Maria Friedman sings with effortless expressiveness while delicately exploring the humor, pluckiness and melancholy self-reproach of Collins’ heroine, Marian Halcombe. And Michael Ball (last seen on Broadway in 1990 in Lloyd Webber’s “Aspects of Love”) animates every scene he graces; his corpulent, twinkle-toed Count Fosco is a gleefully wicked caricature that injects a welcome shot of vibrancy.
Charlotte Jones has filleted the doorstop of a book down to workable size, tacking on an awkward new ending. She honors the story’s literary roots as the foremost example of the 1860s genre, the Novel of Sensation, by focusing on the dark secret held by the ghostly title character. But mystery and suspense take a back seat to romance in the tormented emotional triangle that links handsome young drawing instructor Walter Hartright (Adam Brazier) to half-sisters Laura Fairlie (Jill Paice) and Marian. Crucially, Jones has jettisoned Collins’ original revelation concerning Laura’s nefarious fiance, Sir Percival Glyde (Ron Bohmer) — that he is illegitimate and has no right to his title — for darker truths that will have a more sinister ring for contemporary auds.
For all its villainous men, imperiled women, palpitating hearts, murder and madness, however, the melodrama feels sadly hollow. Opening scene, in a fog-shrouded railway station, conjures an eerie atmosphere as Hartright encounters the woman in white (Angela Christian), who emerges out of a tunnel, babbling about being mistreated by a man whose name she refuses to utter, and then vanishes again just as suddenly. But that atmosphere evaporates as Hartright reaches Limmeridge House.
It’s a challenge to get immersed in any story when the actors are competing for attention with the underlit, low-definition images on Dudley’s giant curved screen, its central panel occasionally separating and gliding forward. The flat cartoon realism of scenes in the stately mansion or its surrounding woods alongside gurgling waterfalls resembles “Shrek” without the critters. For both economic and artistic reasons, there may be a future for filmed scenery taking the place of movable sets, but it seems fundamentally at odds with this show’s Victorian sensibility.
Lloyd Webber’s music, while it tempers the syrupy romanticism of his melodies by weaving more complex, discordant textures that echo the story’s troubled moods, fires off almost its entire arsenal in the first act and then remains stuck in repetitive overdrive. Each character’s theme melody resurfaces, strung together with musical wallpaper.
There are no standout numbers, and the ballads “I Believe My Heart” and “Evermore Without You” sound like corresponding songs in “Phantom of the Opera” or “Sunset Boulevard,” with efficient but uninspired new lyrics by David Zippel. Lloyd Webber’s style has been so thoroughly lampooned over the years — most recently in “Spamalot” — it’s now hard to take these songs at face value.
Dramatic numbers like “The Nightmare,” in which the drugged Marian is visited in her sleep by her anxieties; and “Lost Souls,” when she travels to a Dickensian London populated by beggars, muggers,
whores and inebriates, are staged by Nunn with plodding literal-mindedness. Also missing the mark is the villagers’ folkloric chant “Lammastide,” which seems like a rustic outtake from some other archaic show you never want to see.
Friedman stirs the most profound sentiments in “All for Laura,” near the close of act one, in which she berates herself for having steered her wary sister into a loveless marriage to a fiend and sent away the man they both love. Otherwise it’s left to the dandified, fat-suited Ball to liven things up with his two numbers, “A Gift for Living Well,” in which he outlines his bon vivant credo; and especially, prancing through the showy ode to unscrupulous behavior, “You Can Get Away With Anything.” “There’s only one thing one has to have/One has to have no shame,” sings Ball, his skills as a campy farceur reaching new heights as a large white rat scampers up and down his arms.
Brazier makes a vigorous, youthful romantic lead, and Paice displays a pretty soprano and an appealingly tremulous stage presence. Bohmer’s Glyde and Walter Charles’ crabby Mr. Fairlie are a little colorless, while Christian, whose accent wanders over the moors of more than one county, mistakes shrill and abrasive for ethereal and possessed. Nunn puts all of the actors through their paces, having them stride across Dudley’s constantly spinning turntable. But in this solemn, lumbering show, they keep moving while getting nowhere.