Andrew Lloyd Webber Unabashedly Celebrates Himself in Unmasked
Webber's musical revue makes its world premiere at Paper Mill Playhouse.
Unmasked: The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber is one of the more befuddling productions Paper Mill Playhouse has produced in quite some time — an unexpected impression for it to leave, considering its title theoretically tells you exactly what it is (and is presumably a corollary to his 2018 memoir of the same name). An Andrew Lloyd Webber musical revue is an easy enough concept to grasp. We saw one on Broadway in 2017 when Prince of Broadway gave us a musical collage of the late Hal Prince's most famous projects: more or less an even split between Webber and Stephen Sondheim with a smidge of Kander and Ebb for good measure.
So I suppose this time, the point is that there are no composer rivals around to upstage the wizard of Broadway longevity who worked his magic on musicals like Evita, Cats, and of course, The Phantom of the Opera. It's Webber's world and we're just living in it for two-and-a-half long hours of untempered self-congratulation and theatrical vlogging.
That's right. Through the power of technology, the man himself gets to have an outsize presence in his own commemorative production. You might think his onscreen request for the audience to power down their cellphones is just a fun flourish for the top of show, but he returns again…and again…and again to introduce each section of his retrospective (sometimes one intro per section isn't even enough).
Wandering through the streets of London or sitting at various piano benches, he explains how he nearly passed on Tim Rice's idea for an Eva Peron musical, why he considers "Gethsemane" his greatest character song, and how the tune to "With One Look" was nearly in The Little Mermaid (if Roy Disney had wanted a more Phantom-y version of the fairytale, which he decidedly did not). The anecdotes are interesting, and they're even delivered with charm and a fair amount of self-deprecation. But that doesn't stop his looming presence as an all-powerful overseer from making his cast more like pawns than performers.
Aside from Alex Finke's lovely rendition of "Pie Jesu" from Webber's lesser known Requiem, melodrama is the one character choice coming out of the ensemble (or perhaps the one character mandate coming from director and choreographer JoAnn M. Hunter). Mamie Parris — a Webber regular who not long ago picked up Broadway Grizabella duty as a replacement for the short-lived Leona Lewis in the 2016 revival of Cats — lends her muscular voice to power ballads like "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" and "Memory." She, along with Rema Webb, playing Sunset Boulevard's Norma Desmond, and Alyssa Giannetti showing off her soprano as Phantom's Christine Daaé, are technical perfection (more than can be said for the male ensemble). But among all the vocal prowess, there's nothing interesting in the performances to grab onto — like a collection of Broadway action figures temporarily animated by the voice of their creator.
That's essentially what they become in the Act 2 opener, "Here We Are on Broadway," a brand-new song no one asked for that gathers all of Webber's best-known characters (plus Andrew Kober's cheeky embodiment of T.S. Eliot) in their iconic costumes (Parris suddenly is in full Evita getup, which she did not have during her actual Evita numbers, but the white gown is faithfully re-created by Alexander Dodge).
Once we get to the photo montage of Webber's glitziest moments and goofiest haircuts, Unmasked shifts from a standard revue to an odd blend of lifetime achievement award ceremony and memorial service, made odder by the fact that Webber crafted it himself. He collaborated on this self-tribute with Richard Curtis (celebrated screenwriter of romantic films like Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love Actually), so blame for tone deafness and general perplexity can't be laid squarely in one lap. But the hollow road ahead of Unmasked becomes pretty clear from the opening video diary entry when Webber staunchly rejects the concept of chronology in musical revues. What's the better dramaturgical choice, you may ask? He doesn't say. And as you quickly find out, it's because he doesn't know.