Monday, March 11, 2013

A Phantastic Revue ... or Just a Well-Composed Memory? -- Now & Forever: The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Now & Forever: The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber
Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire, IL
Thru March 24

I have mixed, and somewhat conflicting, feelings when it comes to Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber.

I have seen, and enjoyed, enough of his musicals to appreciate his formidable talent, ambition, success and impact as a composer, and subsequently, producer and impresario.

His early works with lyricist Tim Rice, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Jesus Christ Superstar, helped to marry rock ’n roll with musical theater (after the pioneering Hair), and Evita—also with lyrics by Rice—remains, IMHO, the best musical Webber has written and among the best that anyone has.

In the ’80s, mega-blockbusters Cats and Phantom of the Opera forever redefined the musical theater landscape, and while I don’t like the latter nearly on par with its status as the most successful musical of all-time, it has its moments.

Sunset Boulevard was the first musical I ever saw on Broadway, and in London I saw two Webber shows—The Beautiful Game and The Woman in White—that either didn’t reach or succeed on Broadway. I even saw Bombay Dreams, which he didn’t write but produced and brought to Broadway, and I still remember how a musical aficionado aunt of mine long championed Aspects of Love as his most beautiful composition.

All told, I’ve seen 10 ALW musicals on stage and have the Phantom sequel, Love Never Dies, waiting on my DVR.

One of my "Once Upun a Time" cartoons, from 1996
So it’s not like I hate Sir Andrew and the musicals he’s written. It’s just that somewhere along the line—in what I consider a demarcation of personal and musical maturation—I realized how much better Stephen Sondheim was.

And that while Andrew Lloyd Webber is likely the greatest ‘name brand’ maker of musicals since Rogers and Hammerstein, he also isn’t as good as them nor others, including Lerner & Loewe, Kander & Ebb, Bock & Harnick, Boublil & Schönberg, Jerry Herman and Leonard Bernstein.

Still, I’ve liked enough of what ALW has written to be intrigued by Marriott Theatre Lincolnshire’s world premiere revue Now & Forever: The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber. And having heard and read good things about it, I decided to check it out late Sunday afternoon, the least expensive of its 8 weekly performances.

Conceived by Marriott Theatre lead artistic director Aaron Thielen and longtime director Marc Robin (who directs it), and featuring songs from 14 Webber shows--including Love Never Dies, as yet unstaged in America--the revue essentially serves as a microcosm of my feelings for Sir Andrew, for better and worse.

There were enough good songs, great vocal performances from a stellar cast and impressive dance interludes to make Now & Forever pleasurable, at least in the moment.

But it took a late blast of trademark ballads—“Think of Me,” “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” “Gethsemane,” “Memory”—and a show closing, full-cast “Music of the Night” to get my rating up to @@@@ (out of 5), and did nothing to change my opinion about Webber being lesser than a number of other composers who haven't nearly accumulated his wealth.

I am fairly certain I would prefer a revue comprising some of the greatest hits of Sondheim, Rogers & Hammerstein, Kander & Ebb, etc., and I know that Snapshots--a 2011 Northlight Theatre show employing songs from the Stephen Schwartz catalog in service of a new narrative--was far more imaginative and satisfying.

Stephanie Binetti and dancers performing "Buenos Aires" from Evita
And while the revue had plenty of highlights, some of which I'll cite below, I also assume I would have been more enamored seeing any of the strong Webber shows--Evita, Cats, Sunset Boulevard, Joseph, Aspects of Love, even Phantom--in full, even though I already have (several at Marriott Theatre).

But I can't deny that I joined the near full house in giving the performers of Now and Forever a hearty standing ovation at the end of the 135-minute affair.

The show began with nary a performer onstage, as the unseen 11-piece orchestra played the Phantom of the Opera overture to accompany a large chandelier and flashing lights (harkening to a famous scene from that show). I would suggest a different opening, but the following "As If We Never Said Goodbye" allowed the cast--including several Broadway and/or Webber show veterans--demonstrate their superlative singing voices and/or dancing skills.

Erin Stewart
Standout performers were many, including Erin Stewart, who literally shone on "Think of Me" and also performed some nice duets, Linda Balgord, a Cats vet who delivered an emotive "Memory," Susan Moniz, whose "Don't Cry For Me Argentina" was just about perfect and Max Quinlan, who was good on several songs, including the solo "Gethsemane" from Jesus Christ Superstar.

Stephanie Binetti, Ben Jacoby, Jameson Cooper, Brian Bohr and Catherine Lord also merit mention, while Travis Taylor--despite being one of few featured vocalists seemingly without Broadway or National Tour experience--clearly had the most resonant male voice. I would have liked to hear him get a solo turn other than "Til I Hear You Sing," from Love Never Dies.

Particularly sublime was a version of "Love Changes Everything" from Aspects of Love, pooling the talents of Taylor, Quinlan and Jacoby.

Travis Taylor
I'm sure if I looked through the songlists from all ALW shows, I could cite a number of songs I would have liked to hear, perhaps in lieu of some included, but the only one that readily comes to mind sans research is "Another Suitcase in Another Hall," from Evita and probably the best song Webber & Rice ever wrote.

Perhaps it's because they were unfamiliar, but the songs from Love Never Dies didn't wow me, while it seemed there were a few too many selections from Song & Dance, a lesser known ALW show that was actually a combination of two other Webber musicals, Variations and Tell Me on a Sunday.

While the solo renditions were likely the highlights of Now & Forever, there were also some terrific choral numbers, such as "Superstar," "Requiem for Evita" and the closing "Music of the Night."

"Masquerade," which might well be the best song from Phantom, could have used a bit more oomph--while appreciating the cast had done a 1pm performance before the 5pm I attended--but it was nice that some costuming was employed, unlike "The Phantom of the Opera" duet between Erin Stewart and Max Quinlan, who should've been armed with a mask and cape.

Linda Balgord
There was also some excellent dancing, with several--perhaps a few too many--instrumental dance interludes between the vocal numbers.

If you love Andrew Lloyd Webber, Now & Forever should serve as a satisfying tribute with many superlative performances.

If you merely like him, like me, you'll likely appreciate the entertainment value of Now & Forever, but your regard for the celebrated composer is apt to  pretty much stay the same.

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