“Leave them wanting more,” trills Michael Crawford as blimpish Count Fosco, minutes before one of Victorian literature’s most famous villains exits “The Woman in White.” And boy, does Crawford follow Fosco’s advice. When Crawford is centerstage — for the first time in 18 years in London, a return home that itself constitutes news — this sung-through adaptation of the Wilkie Collins novel has a sly, spry wit. And when he isn’t? Well, you’ve got three hours to ponder the chasm between the exciting chamber piece that “Woman in White” might someday be — paging the 2025 Donmar revival — and this solemn, lazily directed and disastrously designed West End premiere, which takes a celebrated “sensation novel” and makes it over into an Imax-style virtual-reality travelogue. And an unusually ugly one, at that.
That the only truly “dizzying” aspect of Trevor Nunn’s production is designer William Dudley’s projections shows the skewed priorities that have beset Lloyd Webber’s first new London musical since “The Beautiful Game” four years ago. (“Bombay Dreams” doesn’t count, since the composer produced but did not write that show.) Lloyd Webber’s score contains some gorgeous instrumental passages and sequences that recall Britten, Rossini and even Arthur Sullivan as opposed to the Puccini norm. But the ambitious score is encased in a staging that seems to have taken its cue from Crawford’s (admittedly astonishing) fat suit: It wants to be big and bleating and — presumably in keeping with Collins’ own aims — sensational, but the material is almost always most engaging when it dares to think small.
Consider, for instance, the immediately arresting opening, in which drawing master Walter Hartright (Martin Crewes, handsomely filling what a decade or so ago would have been the Michael Ball part) first confronts the eponymous white-clad woman (Angela Christian, at sea with the accent), but not before David Cullen’s orchestrations, as supervised by Lloyd Webber, have conveyed the eerie, atmospheric musicality of telegraph wires singing in the wind. Sure, the expected Lloyd Webber surges aren’t far off, but the lushness here at least occasionally takes a back seat to an interest in dissonance and atonality: a distinctly ominous resetting, for instance, of “The Holly and the Ivy,” as if to underscore a marriage that will end in tears, while hinting at the madness that is the topic of this Lloyd Webber show, no less than it was of “Sunset Boulevard.”
What, no tunes? Oh, they’re here, all right, often bringing with them some of the more eccentric lyrics even Lloyd Webber has ever faced: “I believe my heart/it believes in you” (huh?). But the score’s comparative complexity doesn’t really benefit from the musical behemoth hard sell, with wailing lovers standing at the lip of the Palace Theater stage, all a-quiver. How nice it might be if these characters would bother to engage with each other rather than braying soulfully, and often histrionically, across the footlights.
The chief casualty of this approach is the hugely talented Maria Friedman, who would be an infinitely more affecting Marian Halcombe in a different context. Here cast as perhaps the only major heroine in English literature known for her mustache (a detail mercifully discarded in Charlotte Jones’ book), Friedman must play romantic also-ran, seductress and human exemplar of the most manic extremes of self-reproach. Throw them all together, and you get a first-act finale like “All for Laura,” in which Marian must attempt to deal with the realization that she may well have sold her half-sister Laura (American performer Jill Paice, in a charming West End debut) down the river, into the hands of Sir Percival Glyde (played by Oliver Darley, as unthreatening as he is tall).
Jones’ version of events doesn’t tally with Collins’, though one has to wonder how many spectators will have waded sufficiently through the novel to noticeSensibly, Jones has edited out several characters, including Madame Fosco, while substituting the book’s distinctly 19th-century secret (Glyde’s illegitimacy) with another. The romantic stakes are upped by granting Marian a degree of ardor for Walter, who in turn loves Laura.
These sentiments unfold to the more dismayingly generic portions of a score that, in terms of David Zippel’s lyrics, is always best when most specific (I like the rhyme of “trust/nonplussed”) and worst when tethered to anthemic assaults like “Evermore Without You,” a number whose title tells you everything you need to know.
You could argue that Crawford’s Fosco belongs to another show altogether, though that would be to weaken severely the occasion at hand. Despite the caricatured appearance, with curly mop of black hair, the performance is extremely nuanced. Its mock-Italianate aspect isn’t nearly as laden with shtick as might be indicated by lines like, “As we Italians say/the plot she thickens.”
And in the second act, the actor delivers a double coup: His jaunty crowd-pleasing “I Can Get Away With Anything” — sung with gusto while a real-life rodent all but scurries into his mouth — follows a beautifully acted seduction scene with Marian in which Crawford’s pixie-ish visage imperceptibly hardens, to suit the plot. Crawford was a surprise choice for the production, and his turn as a wide-eyed Pavarotti turns out to be its ace in the hole, both absurd and graceful as required.
Such extremes apply equally, if less successfully, to a staging from Nunn that tends to collapse entirely whenever there are more than two or three people onstage at once. A first-act Cumberland hoedown looks like it was cut from “Martin Guerre,” while a second-act tour through a London asylum constitutes so much, well, bedlam.
In any case, the fundamental intimacy of the piece hardly needs such embellishments, and certainly didn’t need choreographer Wayne McGregor, a darling of the British contemporary dance world — though you’d scarcely know that here.
As for the supposedly progressive design, pioneered to infinitely better effect by Dudley and Nunn in their National Theater “Coast of Utopia,” I see no problem with projections, provided they establish atmosphere, are in focus and don’t prompt either laughter or worse from the house. (Several friends left at intermission, feeling queasy.) But all the chills of the spectral opening are immediately dispelled by the murky, drably lit wash that ensues, without letup, for the rest of the evening.
Musically, and in one bona fide star performance, there’s plenty to applaud in “Woman in White.” The show does not need to be upstaged — no, make that sabotaged — by its own production.