Review: The Woman in White at Charing Cross Theatre

In some ways, it's no surprise that The Woman in White is one of my favorite musicals I've ever seen. Having just read the novel by Wilkie Collins and fallen absolutely in love with it and being someone who first came to theatre through Andrew Lloyd Webber's work, I am perhaps the best possible audience for this show.

I first saw this brilliant new production on its opening night and then saw it again one week later. It was wonderful to see the way it developed further during its first week. While I sadly was not at its press night on Monday, I thought I'd save my review to come out the same week as the others'.

My second time seeing the show was from the
middle of the front row
This production is a revision of the earlier 2004 musical, with a book by Charlotte Jones, music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, and lyrics by David Zippel. While the original show came under criticism for its supposedly dizzying projections and rambling length, the newly revised musical manages to condense a 700 page novel into two and a half hours and relies on fairly simple set design.

This show reminds me of everything that is best about the musicals that epitomize Andrew Lloyd Webber's style -- sweeping music, large emotions, gothic melodrama. In truth, I prefer it to Phantom of the Opera because it feels more real and more relevant.

Carolyn Maitland, Ashley Stillburn, and Anna O'Byrne
create a beautiful tableau
The Woman in White tells the story of drawing master Walter Hartwright who, on his way to Limmridge House, has a mysterious encounter with a young woman dressed all in white who tells him that she has a secret that could ruin the man who has wronged her. Walter's students are half-sisters Laura and Marion. While Laura is everything you could want from a Victorian heroine -- kind, fun, and beautiful--Marion is a wonderfully witty and modern woman who adores her sister above all things. They are watched over by their uncle, Mr. Fairlie, a hypochondriac invalid.

However, their idyllic existence and Laura and Walter's blossoming love is interrupted all too soon by the appearance of Laura's fiancé, the dashing Sir Percival Glyde who is perhaps not what he seems. Add in his comically villainous best friend, Count Fosco, and you have everything you need for a gothic sensational story.

Carolyn Maitland is the superstar of the cast as the loving and determined Marion Halcombe. She is delightful in "I Hope You Like It Here" (perhaps the closest ALW has ever come to a patter song?) and heartbreaking in her big solo, "All For Laura." She is completely believable as the protective big sister and manages to convey such longing in each heartbreaking glance at Walter. I've adored Carolyn for years (she is the most wonderful person and always has a kind word for everyone) and I hope that this show finally gets her the recognition she deserves.

Carolyn Maitland as Marion Halcombe
Anna O'Byrne provides a beautiful contrast as the seemingly delicate ingenue Laura Fairlie. She is one of those actresses who actively acts the entire time she is on stage and manages to make a character who could seem cliché a completely developed person. Her voice is absolutely lovely and has a strength behind it that many sopranos lack, but it's her acting--particularly in the last few scenes--that blew me away.

The titular 'woman in white,' Anne Catherick, is played by Sophie Reeves who has a stunningly beautiful voice. I was particularly impressed with how she built Anne's grief and anxiety into every part of her characterization, like the fact that she is constantly fiddling with her clothing. She stands every bit the third part of an equally talented trio of women.

Chris Peluso as Sir Percival Glyde and
the 'Woman in White'
Ashley Stillburn is in every way the perfect Walter Hartwright. He brings a gentleness to the character in his interactions with Laura, while still having something appropriately unrefined and honest that sets him apart from his pupils. His voice is absolutely stunning and well suited to songs like "Perspective" and "Evermore Without You." He completely broke my heart in Act II of the show. (I must say that Walter Hartwright is my favorite male character in a novel ever and Ashley Stillburn does him justice in a way I hadn't thought possible.)

Chris Peluso portrays the dashing but ultimately dastardly Sir Percival Glyde, Laura's fiancé. He brings a convincing reality to a character that could easily become a caricature and his voice is very well suited to the role. I'm impressed by how he transitions from the Glyde of Act I to Act II without the character seeming disjointed.

Greg Castioglioni plays Glyde's friend, Count Fosco,  with a lot more subtly than the character was allowed in the original production. His "You Can Get Away With Anything" is splendid and he somehow maintains his lovability despite his villain status. I loved that while he was certainly the show's comic relief, he never lost sight of the fact that Count Fosco is a rather horrible person (in the way that many actors who play Thenardier in Les Mis do).

Greg Castioglioni as Count Fosco
Antony Cable is a wonderfully funny Mr. Fairlie and the rest of the ensemble (Christopher Blades, Olivia Brereton, Janet Mooney, and Dan Walter) are all lovely in their roles. I can't help but be impressed by the three young girls who share the role of the Corn Dolly Girl -- Alice Bonney, Olivia Dixon, and Rebecca Nardin -- as it's a bit more vocally demanding than many roles for girls of their age.

I cannot praise director Thom Southerland's reimagining of this show enough. He manages to pull out all the drama and the humor of the story while still keeping it based around the simple human emotions that drive it. The lighting by Rick Fisher builds a wonderful atmosphere and the set itself by Morgan Large is lovely and understated. I particularly loved the use of sliding panels to have many reveals of characters, especially Anne Catherick. The costumes by Jonathan Lipman are another highlight of the show and I appreciate that the costumes worn by Glyde and Fosco rival Marian and Laura's for their beauty and creativity.

The show feels perhaps more relevant now than ever, with its themes of the mistreatment of women and the need to stand up against men who abuse their power. Both times I saw the show, I was struck by the moment when Marian tells her sister, "We will not be victims, Laura. We will right this wrong." This show, despite its soaring music and beautiful design, is most meaningful because it demonstrates that it is always worth standing up to those who mistreat others and not giving up on those that you love.

The Woman in White has become my favorite Andrew Lloyd Webber musical and I look forward to seeing it again in January. There are rumors of a possible Broadway production in the future, but for now, my greatest hope is for a cast recording of this brilliant cast.

If you'd like to know more of my thoughts on the novel and the musical as an adaption of it, make sure to watch my video:

Photo Credit: Darren Bell
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