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After a rough start, Andrew Lloyd Webber revue shines

THEATER REVIEW: 'Now and Forever' at the Marriott Theatre ★★★

Chris Jones

January 24, 2013

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At the start — the rough start — of the Marriott Theatre's new revue of the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber, entitled, with justification, "Now & Forever," the throbbing electronic tones of "The Phantom of the Opera" fill the theater as colored lights flash repetitively on a chandelier sitting on the stage.

To say that this is not a subtle opening is like saying Sir A. has a nice house in Barbados. It does not even begin to describe the full situation. Worse, this chandelier then rises to the ceiling (a voyage of about six feet, which is about all the headroom they have) and it's immediately followed by a clutch of very attractive singers walking out and sharing the lyrics to "As If We Never Said Goodbye" from "Sunset Boulevard," which, if memory serves, is exactly the cliched way ("I don't know why I'm frightened/I know my way around here") Barbra Streisand started one of her arena tours.

One sympathizes with the choice: Commercial theaters like the Marriott have been lusting for years to get the music to "Phantom" on their stages, if only the darn thing would close on Broadway already. You can't blame them for throwing it out there at the start. Finally, Lloyd Webber-land has allowed the money material to appear in a revue, along with songs from "Cats," "Sunset Boulevard," and even "Love Never Dies," the much-maligned "Phantom" sequel yet to be seen on Broadway. But sometimes you have to protect the audience from what it thinks it wants. Anyway, the terrible opening violates the first rule of revues of the material of familiar and prolific composers: Approach the subject with a glancing blow, pick your material with delicacy and make unusual connections. In this case, it would have been smart to stay away from chandeliers.

"Now & Forever," in its premiere at the Marriott, never gets around to exploring what the music of Lloyd Webber actually means, as it should (and I mean that in all seriousness; he's surely been one of the soundtracks to my particular tawdry life, ever since the late 1970s), nor does it make new or profound linkages between his astonishingly broad array of compositions. But it does, quite quickly, get a whole lot better. The cast is too talented to permit otherwise. The opener should have been "The Jellicle Ball," the lively sequence from "Cats" here set to droll choreography by the director, Marc Robin, just as various "Variations" from "Song and Dance" are set mostly to the terrific work of co-choreographer Harrison McEldowney, whose naturalistic (yes, naturalistic) work here reminds me of that of Steven Hoggett of "Once" fame. One might not think of Lloyd Webber as an ideal backdrop for dance, but, in fact, his fare offers all kinds of possibilities for a populist kind of movement, which McEldowney and a truly lovely group of dancers exploit beautifully.

The Marriott has invested heavily in a top-drawer, New York- and Chicago-based cast (this is no small revue; the cast numbers 19). The night, gorgeously costumed by Nancy Missimi, is headlined by Linda Balgord, a veteran Lloyd Webber interpreter (I remember seeing her years ago in "Sunset Boulevard" at the Civic Opera House) whose work has only grown better with age. Balgord's unimpeachable bona fides — supported by the gorgeously voiced Erin Stewart, another stellar ALW vet, the Chicago star Susan Moniz and Max Quinlan (fresh from touring with "Les Miz") — anchor this show. One really doesn't get much of a chance to see the old-school likes of Balgord in an era when so many Broadway tours are non-Equity. Her technique is exquisite and her "Memory" is as fine a "Memory" as you ever will hear.

I've never been an ALW detractor. Without his remarkable work, the commercial theater as we know it would be in different and infinitely more pathetic shape. No living composer for the stage has brought so many to the theater. This revue surely reveals his formidable range: "Pie Jesu" to "Any Dream Will Do" is quite a trip. And, rather like George Gershwin, ALW has many songs that one can enjoy hearing again without actually having to sit through the terrible show that once housed them: the toe-tapping title number to "Starlight Express" is in that category. That song about a train surely has the most repetitive lyrics ever written ("Are you real? Yes or no?" and on, and on), but it still gives me goose bumps. And Brian Bohr nails it, as Jameson Cooper does "Close Every Door," the song from "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" that in Chicago we think of as a Donny Osmond anthem. Sir A. even revived an Osmond.

I'd argue that "Gethsemane," the intense song from "Jesus Christ Superstar" (a great number, let's stipulate) shouldn't ever really be transposed to a revue and sung in street clothes. That said, Quinlan's interpretation is spectacular. In Act 2, "Now & Forever" basically trots out a series of huge ALW power ballads: Moniz belts "Don't Cry For Me Argentina," Quinlan does his Jesus thing, Balgord kills with "Memory." It's quite a progression. I kept pondering what some alternatives might have been — what bigger themes might have emerged. Some exploration of the composer's astonishing broad appeal? (Detractors aside.) A study of how his work follows the trajectory of life itself? I found myself wanting more of a point of view; those around me were just loving such mastery of theatricality.