It's called a Zoetrope and it's one of the earliest inventions which led to modern motion picture cameras and projectors. Created in Victorian England by William George Horner, a series of sequential still drawings would be placed inside a cylinder with holes cut out between each one. When the cylinder was spun around, a person watching through the holes would see the drawings simulate movement.
One of the first images we see in The Woman in White, is that of a Zoetrope twirling around, coming toward us until the audience appears to be looking inside to see the show's first setting. As the musical ends we see the contraption once more pulling away from us and we exit the world of Andrew Lloyd Webber, David Zippel and Charlotte Jones' adaptation of Wilkie Collins' 1860 novel.
How coincidental it is that at a time when the latest film version of a Broadway musical is being criticized by some for being too stagey, there's a new live Broadway musical that takes enormous strides in replicating the experience of watching moving pictures. I'll leave it to your own personal taste to decide if that's a good thing or a bad thing, but nevertheless it's a legitimate dramatic choice, given the popularity of Zoetropes at the time of the story's action and the fact that one of the main characters is a sketch artist who no doubt would have had some interest in this device. Indeed, director Trevor Nunn's production is so remarkably cinematic that it often feels like we're getting a sneak peek at the musical's film version.
Set, costume and video designer William Dudley places three white curved walls on stage, suggesting the cylinder of a Zoetrope, which catch his complex series of projected drawings that not only set the scenes, but simulate movement. A train passes by, a waterfall plummets into a babbling brook and we often get a bird's eye view of scene changes, like those "rides" in theme parks where you sit still in a stationary chair but feel as though you're traveling. Mick Potter completes the effect with realistic sounds coming from all parts of the theatre. At one point I was tricked into thinking there was a chorus of singers in the seats just above me.
Oh yes, there's a plot and characters too, and one of the plusses of this unique set design is that the three walls push the action downstage, allowing the audience a more intimate connection with the actors while retaining a great amount of detail in their surroundings.
The source is widely regarded as the first of the genre of "sensation novels", which led to the detective novels of today. Collins presents us with the "remarkably ugly" Marian (a very attractive Maria Friedman -- Why do they always get such good looking women to play these roles?), whose wealthy half-sister Laura (Jill Paice) has been arranged by her uncle (Walter Charles) to wed the money-hungry Sir Percival Glyde (Ron Bohmer). When both sisters fall hard for Walter (Adam Brazier), their new drawing instructor, Marian graciously steps aside when the teacher confesses undying love for her sibling. Her plot to discredit Sir Glyde involves a mysterious woman in white (Angela Christian) and matching wits with Percival's exceedingly corpulent buddy, Count Fosca (Michael Ball in a very convincing fat suit.).
I suppose it's only fair to point out that I've never been much of a fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber's music, with the exception of the uncharacteristically peppy and tuneful By Jeeves, which frequently spins about on my CD player. So in commenting on his score for The Woman in White, perhaps the most diplomatic description to potential theatre-goers is to say that if you're of the ilk who have helped make Cats and Phantom of the Opera the two longest-running shows in Broadway history, you'll most likely be pleased with his latest venture. Those who are not... you know what you're in for. His brand of modified dramatic pop, depending highly on emotional sweep over musical complexity, attracts many and repels many, so I'm not about to inflict my taste on those who no doubt will love it. The score is exactly the kind that has made his most successful musicals popular.
I will, however, be a little harsh on David Zippel, whose lyrics are uncharacteristically dull and hackneyed to the point of annoyance. Can you really develop empathy for characters who sing stuff like, "I believe my heart / It believes in you / It's telling me that what I see / Is completely true?" Can a plot really hold your interest when it's told with rhymes like, "There's nothing to decide / My niece will marry Glyde / A Christmas wedding / Is where we're heading?"
With an abundance of bland emotions to express and more interesting doings going on behind them, some of the actors seem to blend in a bit with the scenery. Not so, however, with Ron Bohmer, who supplies welcome bursts of energy and dashing showmanship. Likewise, Michael Ball is highly amusing in his comic role, especially when given a bombastic Gilbert and Sullivan style solo (Zippel's best work here) where he merrily charms both the audience and a live rat.
The backstage drama of The Woman in White, of course, involves leading lady Maria Friedman, who shows herself as a fine singing actress despite enduring breast cancer treatments since Broadway previews began. The minimal number of performances she has been missing, given the circumstances, is admirable and praiseworthy.
If I seem a little wishy-washy in giving a direct opinion of The Woman in White, it's because you can't really criticize artists for achieving what they obviously intended, especially on such a high and unique technical level. There was much that I admired, but less that I liked.
Photos by Paul Kolnik: Top: Michael Ball
Center: Maria Friedman and Michael Ball
Bottom: Ron Bohmer