Unmasked: The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber

Dave Schoonover, Marta Bagratuni, and Angel Lozada

By Adam Cohen

 

Vocal pyrotechnics are on full and fine display in Paper Mill Playhouse’s Unmasked: The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber. The production, directed by Joann M. Hunter, is a retrospective of Lloyd Webber’s career as the composer of well-known musicals, including The Phantom of the Opera, Cats, Evita, and Jesus Christ Superstar. And don’t worry: Lloyd Webber casts himself— via video— alternately introducing shows and songs, discussing behind the scenes tidbits, and the origins of some of the musicals themselves. He’s a Greek Chorus unto himself spouting tidbits co-written by Richard Curtis.

To be honest, the only full production of Lloyd Webber’s work I’ve ever seen is his last musical on Broadway, School of Rock. His other subject matter— Jesus Christ, cats, and a musical version of one of the greatest movies ever (Sunset Boulevard)— left me cold. And while Hunter’s efficient production here is beautifully and powerfully sung by a cast of 12, the overall feeling is one of an overstuffed buffet. 

Lloyd Webber has an august career, and cherry-picking selections is difficult. One has to balance the greatest hits with the composer’s own favorites— why else would his Olympics anthem “Amigos Para Siepre” be part of the evening? This is contrasted by the raw beauty and passion of singer Alex Finke’s powerfully moving performance of “Pie Jesu” from Requiem.

Hunter proves adept at providing just enough of classics Lloyd Webber fans crave: A Cliff Notes array of medleys that cover the basics of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Evita, Cats, Sunset Boulevard, and Phantom. This allows the whole cast to have a shining moment and satisfies the audience’s collective desire for the familiar— not to mention those good old-fashioned bombastic crescendos. It’s like wearing Rent the Runway to Fashion Week: You look good enough to be fashionable. The overall vibe with designer Alexander Dodge’s leather leaning costumes and stairways to nowhere is cruise chic.

Alex Finke, Rema Webb, Mamie Parris, Amy Justman, and Alyssa Giannetti

Highlights of the evening include any number sung by Mamie Parris— a Lloyd Webber veteran from School of Rock and the recent revival of Cats. She smiles with Times Square wattage and delivers the emotional heft of “Memory” ably accompanied by Finke. Parris also finds the pathos of “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” and an erotic tango within “Buenos Aires” (both from Evita).

Cellist Marta Bagratuni gets in the act with “Variations 23” while dancing and playing with Dave Schoonover and Angle Lozada. Once again Hunter’s choreography and directing breathe urgent new life into Lloyd Webber’s work.

The ensemble is the razor-sharp edge to Hunter’s production. Collectively their raw singing power keeps the audience in tow through the more tepid and familiar beats. They add necessary grit to “The Song That Everybody Hates,” among others. Singular moments of impact include the company’s take on “Magical Mister Mistoffelees” from Cats and Bronson Norris Murphy’s soulful “The Music of the Night” from Phantom. Rema Webb offers a soulful, haunting clarity to “Take That Look Off Your Face” (from Tell Me On a Sunday), and a taut wistfulness to “As If We Never Said Goodbye” (from Sunset Boulevard).

The gift of the evening was truly the aural dynamos performing the selection of songs— guided by the astute music supervision by David Andrew Wilson and music direction by Michael Patrick Walker.

Photos: Jerry Dalia

Unmasked: The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber

Playing through March 1, Wednesday through Sunday

At the Paper Mill Playhouse – 22 Brookside Dr. in Millburn, NJ

papermill.org

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