If you are interested in fine singing in musical theatre, then The Woman In White is mandatory viewing. Across the board, the singing here is exquisite and not bettered in any show currently playing in London. Thom Southerland’s revival makes a good case for this Lloyd Webber musical to be reassessed – it’s more thoughtful and interesting than the original production suggested.
In 1859, Wilkie Collins’ novel, The Woman In White, caused somewhat of a sensation: it was a sprawling work, with multiple narrative voices, sensational in tone and a proper mystery. In 2004, a musical adaptation of that novel, directed by Trevor Nunn opened to mixed reviews, and arguments about projections as scenery and fat-suits as costume necessities. Despite, or perhaps because of, the presence of Michael Crawford and Maria Friedman, that adaptation (Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Lyrics by David Zippel and Book by Charlotte Jones) never took flight.
Since then, the musical has languished, rarely revived.
Now playing, at The Charing Cross Theatre, is Thom Southerland’s impressive but, importantly, intimate production – almost as if it were a chamber opera – of The Woman In White. Both Zippel and Lloyd Webber have contributed to revisions and cuts, so the playing time is reduced and the plot more focussed. In some ways this requires more attention from the audience, but, in most ways, everything is greatly improved.
This may not be one of Lloyd Webber’s most thrilling or innovative scores (there are many echoes of The Phantom of the Opera here, for instance) but it is a rich, complex and fascinating one. It is also cohesive – you could imagine the tunes being used as background music in a BBC Victorian thriller. Romantic and lush, but also stately and comic, there is a darkness to it absent from other Lloyd Webber scores. It rewards rapt attention.
David Cullen’s orchestrations (supervised by Lloyd Webber) are superb and given true, vibrant life by Simon Holt’s assiduously sensitive and sensible musical direction and the ten piece orchestra he masterfully commands. Small numbers perhaps but precise, exciting and textured sound. Andrew Johnson’s sound and Holt’s control ensure lyrics and vocal colour are never overwhelmed – the score gets full and vibrant attention.
Southerland’s casting is pitch perfect too. Ashley Stillburn’s powerful and luxurious tenor makes a real mark and his rendition of Evermore Without You genuinely excites. He blends marvellously with Anna O’Byrne in I Believe My Heart and equally well, but appropriately differently, with Carolyn Maitland in If Not For Me For Her.
O’Byrne’s gorgeous soprano is effortlessly free at the top but also richly burnished in the lower register, so she can pour emotion into every note in every phrase – and she does. So does Maitland, whose more Mezzo tones summon warmth and anguish in easy, unaffected ways. When they sing together, it is almost the definition of bliss. If I Could Only Dream This World Away starts Act Two gloriously and it never really looks back. Perspective and Trying Not To Notice, with Stillburn, endlessly delight.
But it is not just them. Chris Peluso is in fine voice as the devious Sir Percival Glyde, whose machinations turn the plot. He uses his darker tones to great advantage but is clear as a bell with top notes. Sophie Reeves is slightly shrill occasionally but otherwise makes an excellent contribution and it is especially nice to hear her duet with Maitland, All For Laura, and the three female leads singing together in the finale of Act One. How often does Lloyd Webber write for lead female harmonies?
The role which attracted the attention of Michael Crawford is here played by Greg Castiglioni who makes far more of the role than Crawford managed. Both his solos, A Gift For Living Well and the show-stopping You Can Get Away With Anything, are utterly first-rate. Castiglioni makes the character come truly alive when singing, and the foibles and the excesses and the foolishness (as well as the acuity) of the Count are all crystal clear in the way the songs as delivered. This is a true tour-de-force.
Morgan Large’s set is simple but remarkably effective. There is no attempt to create grandiose settings but every attempt to evoke the right style and period. The costuming (Jonathan Lipman) is impeccably stylish and quite luxurious, giving an impression of a budget considerably greater than one would expect at such a small venue.
Southerland navigates the toing and froing and scene changes with economy and fluidity. Some of the ensemble do not work hard enough at blending into the swift changes but overall the sense of movement is cleverly managed. Rick Fisher’s lighting adds tremendously to the mood of the piece and the final moments are spectacular indeed. There are some longueurs in the first Act, but the second Act is an unending delight in terms of efficient and coherent storytelling. Southerland’s work is truly impressive.
Because the piece is based on a Victorian thriller, there is an occasional tendency towards melodrama in some of the playing and both Peluso and Stillburn do not convince as ardent lovers, fake and real respectively. O’Byrne and Maitland manage the tricky line most convincingly, finding the right modern take on the Victorian style. Castiglioni relishes the scene work and there is a moment with a wig, and another without a beard, both of which are pure gold, examples of perfection in timing, albeit for entirely different purposes.
You could quibble that The Woman In White is a difficult musical to take seriously or that some of the interesting themes from the novel are overlooked or ignored. But Southerland’s production gets under the skin of the type of storytelling Wilkie was famous for and provides performances that sparkle and engage.
Truly, it works as impressive musical entertainment on its own terms.