Various Artists

The Woman In White [Original Cast Recording]

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Andrew Lloyd Webber, who scored the biggest hit of his highly successful career adapting Gaston Leroux's 1911 horror/fantasy novel Phantom of the Opera to the musical theater, returns to familiar ground with what is described as a "freely adapted" musical version of Wilkie Collins' "classic" (and, more important, out of copyright) 1860 novel The Woman in White, considered the first full-length example of detective fiction in English literature. Collins' tale is a gothic melodrama with an innocent heroine married off to an upper-class villain and a terrible secret revealed only in the final moments. Lloyd Webber, an industry unto himself, tends to employ different librettists and lyricists on each project; here, Charlotte Jones does her best with the penny-dreadful plot in her book, while Broadway veteran David Zippel (City of Angels) writes efficient, occasionally witty words for the cast to sing. (Typically, the two-CD album, with a running time of two hours and 24 minutes, contains a complete audio rendering of the show, not just song highlights.) That cast sings as well as it can, although only Michael Crawford (Lloyd Webber's original Phantom) gets a juicy part, mincing around the stage in a fat suit and an Italian accent in the part of Count Fosco, the villain's charming associate. For his part, Lloyd Webber turns in one of his less tuneful but more consistent scores. The trouble is simply that the story is a poor choice for musical theater. It has too many main characters -- in fact, there are actually three heroines -- and, despite Crawford's efforts, it is much too dreary. Lionel Bart managed to enliven the work of Collins' contemporary, Charles Dickens in Oliver!, his musical version of Oliver Twist, but Lloyd Webber has either picked the wrong book to adapt or failed to make it sufficiently compelling as a musical. (The recording was, for the most part, made live on opening night in London, with some studio recordings substituted when there was too much audience reaction. One example is retained as a bonus track, with Crawford's second-act tour de force, "You Can Get Away with Anything," considerably hammed up from the studio version. At least it's amusing.)

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