Maria Friedman and Michael Ball in The Woman in White(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
Maria Friedman and Michael Ball in The Woman in White
(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
The world's first pre-Raphaelite musical has arrived on Broadway. (Not that anyone has been clamoring for one -- at least, not since the 1870s.) It's The Woman in White, and what it owes to the coterie of Victorian painters who gazed back at the Renaissance for lofty influences struck me last January when I first walked into the lobby of London's Palace Theater, where the Andrew Lloyd Webber-David Zippel-Charlotte Jones adaptation of Wilkie Collins's mesmerizing novel has been playing since August 2004. On display in the gaudy space, owned by Webber, were two pre-Raphaelite canvases -- one of them John William Waterhouse's "St. Cecilia," for which Lloyd Webber, an avid art collector, paid a record-setting $10 million at auction in 2000.

That piece of art is not on display at the Marquis Theater, where The Woman in White has landed on American shores; but set and costume designer William Dudley has acknowledged that he turned to the pre-Raphaelites for the decorative ideas he has brought to fruition on stage through extensive use of computer-animated images. Dudley wanted the look of lush natural backgrounds and ornate interiors against which scenes of plummy inspiration could be played. With the help of lighting designer Paul Pyant, he got it right in the motion-sickness-inducing projections that provide the background for the musical.

The Woman in White is about homely Marian Halcombe (Maria Friedman), who refuses to stand by when her beautiful and rich half-sister Laura Fairlie (Jill Paice) enters into a disastrous marriage with the gold-digging Sir Percival Glyde (Ron Bohmer). Marian is such a good-hearted martyr that she gladly stands aside when Walter Hartright (Adam Brazier), the drawing instructor for whom she's set her cap, declares undying passion for Laura. Moreover, when dire events engulf both Laura and her would-be savior -- the Woman in White herself, Anne Catherick (Angela Christian) -- Marian eventually goes to the rescue by, among other tactics, throwing herself at Sir Percival's devious friend, the corpulent and mouse-enamored Count Fosco (Michael Ball).

In Collins's capable and cagey hands, the narrative -- which is told by a number of possibly unreliable witnesses -- is irresistible. This thick tome has been devoured by thousands since it was first serialized as a "sensation novel" in 1859. Its suspense is principally engendered by the mysterious woman in white and the secret she insists that she keeps; but perhaps its greatest attraction to modern readers is Marian, whom Collins depicts as an intelligent and perceptive woman. Were the prolific author spinning his spell-casting story today, he undoubtedly would forget about the vapid Laura and bring Marian and Walter together.

While book writer Jones (Humble Boy) sticks to the Victorian notions of marriageable women, she doesn't hew to Collins's brainy Marian. Instead, she substitutes a cheerful girl-about-the-manor-house who takes her time deciding that she'd best spring into action -- "live to right this wrong," as one of the lyrics presses the point. Marian's high I.Q. may not have seemed the right stuff for this tuner, but that aspect of the book isn't all that's been lost. (I'm not sure that Anne Catherick's secret is ever revealed, although I may have missed it in the libretto's general confusion.)

Left for audiences to grapple with is a tepid watering-down of the plot, and Lloyd Webber's music does little or nothing to elevate the proceedings. The composer almost seems to have tired of his own work; every so often, he unfurls a colorful banner of melody but doesn't sustain it. The same can be said of the usually nimble Zippel, whose best lyrics are contained in Count Fosco's naughty "You Can Get Away With Anything" (performed with a white mouse courtesy of William Berloni Theatrical Animals). But, oh, those love songs! "I Believe My Heart" goes in part, "I believe my heart / It believes in you / It's telling me / That what I see / Is completely true." Lloyd Webber and Zippel may believe their art, but it's far from completely true.

Attempting to establish the urgency of the show's anthems, Friedman, Brazier, Paice, and especially Christian bellow them at the drop of a billowing hem, as if piercing high notes equal passion. Only Ball, outfitted in a fat suit that makes him look like a Toby mug, keeps his vocal counsel; partly for that reason, he's the most appealing figure on hand. Friedman might have been able to do better had the Marian she's been asked to embody possessed the acumen of Collins's Marian. (Regardless, Friedman receives extra points for gallantry, returning to The Woman in White just days after being operated on for first-stage breast cancer.)

When Kenneth Tynan reviewed Rodgers and Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song, he famously deplored it -- with a pun on the title of the novel, play, and later film The World of Suzie Wong -- as "a world of woozy song." Not since then has a musical earned that description so completely as Lloyd Webber's attempt to foist his pre-Raphaelite fantasia upon a William Dudley-assailed public.