Unmasked: The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber Premieres at Paper Mill Playhouse
By: Ellis Nassour
February 14, 2020 – In Unmasked: The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber, the jukebox revue having its world premiere at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse [22 Brookside Drive, Millburn] through March 1, the composer — one of the most successful of all time, isn’t physically present. However, via video feed in a way that could feel immensely intrusive but isn’t, he chats away in various settings, playing piano, and adding background to his and his lyricist collaborators’ thought process. As Lloyd Webber hovers over his vocally-gifted cast, often denigrating himself, he reveals a rarely-seen charm and sense of humor.
The title of the show, devised and co-written with writer/director Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Love Actually, Yesterday) comes from Lloyd Webber’s best-selling memoir, which he quotes liberally.
Over two plus hours, Lloyd Webber fascinates with revelations not in the book, such as the source for the controversial “Superstar” single that paved the way for the worldwide best-selling rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar; the event that inspired his haunting Requiem, which includes “Pie Jesu,” one of his most unlikely but most successful compositions; how, when he was having trouble wrapping his head around Tim Rice’s idea of a musical about Eva Peron, the controversial wife of Argentine dictator Juan, the fading career of Judy Garland inspired the “lilting little tango” anthem that became Evita’s “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina”; and how a tune he wrote when asked by Disney to score The Little Mermaid animated feature, which he ultimately didn’t do, led to two masterful numbers for Sunset Boulevard.
Musicals are, of course, music and lyrics. Lloyd Webber notes how vital a strong book and inspired collaboration with vastly-talented lyricists, such as Rice, his first partner, and Don Black, are. His long list includes Alan Ayckbourn, T.S. Eliot, Christopher Hampton, Charles Hart, Glenn Slater, Jim Steinman, and Richard Stilgoe. One that isn’t mentioned is Amy Powers, who’s been acknowledged for her contributions in the development of four songs for Sunset Boulevard, including “With One Look” and “As If We Never Said Goodbye.”
The superb cast features nine principals: Nicholas Edwards (Frozen), Alex Finke (Come From Away), Alyssa Giannetti (Love Never Dies), Jeremy Landon Hays (Phantom of the Opera), Kara Haller (School of Rock), Amy Justman (2018 Carousel, A Gentleman’s Guide …, 2006 Company), Andrew Kober (School of Rock), Angel Lozada (Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert, also at Chicago Lyric Opera), Mexican stage star and recording artist Mauricio Martinez (Broadway, On Your Feet!), Bronson Norris Murphy (Love Never Dies), Mamie Parris (School of Rock, 2016 Cats), Dave Schoonover (Love Never Dies), Rema Webb (Public Theater/Disney Theatrical’s Hercules, Escape to Margaritaville) – and cellist Marta Bagratuni.
Unmasked is blessed with numerous showstoppers. One opens the show, an a cappella company number, complete with beat bops that covers the spectrum of Lloyd Webber’s musicals. It begins: “…Never was there ever a cat so clever as Jesus Christ Superstar; do you think you’re what they say you are? … Starlight Express, are you real? Let me know; Starlight Express, answer me yes.”
Others, include Murphy’s “Close Every Door” (Joseph…), Justman’s “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and Martinez’s “Gethsemane” (JCS); Parris’ “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” (Evita); Webb’s lively “Take That Look Off Your Face” (Song and Dance); Giannetti’s shattering “Love Never Dies” and Murphy’s “Till I Hear You Sing” (LND); Webb’s “As If We Never Said Goodbye” (SB); and, not surprisingly, Parris and Finke’s Act One finale, “Memory.”
Sadly, not every moment is perfect. Act Two opens with the orchestra’s stirring medley from Lloyd Webber’s roller skating epic Startlight Express. What follows is pure ham: “Here We Are on Broadway,” no claim taken, has characters from five decades of the composer’s shows in signature costumes. These include Eliot and a white-robed Jesus, who belts “I’m the Christ, and I once was the boss, then I had a bad time on a cross. The last thing I expected was Rice and Lloyd Webber to write me a hit.” Yes, it got all the audience gasps and groans it deserved.
Then, there’s the mysterious reason Murphy’s stellar rendering of “Music of the Night” is interrupted by the nonsensical “The Song That Everybody Hates,” which oddly is never named. A verse goes like this: “…The song that everybody hates, the worst song in the shop, and no amount of changing key can hide that it’s a flop.”
Murphy gets to finish his song, and is followed by a clap-happy “Stick It to the Man” from School of Rock, which may certainly feel out of place in this concert of classic show tunes, but doesn’t deserve that degree of disdain.
All in all, in just over two hours, Unmasked: The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber and that of his lyric collaborators amazing body of work will win new fans, and win over some of his detractors. It also revives worthy songs from a couple of flops and some chestnuts from long ago productions.
Unmasked is presented in association with Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group. It’s directed and choreographed by Joann M. Hunter (20 Broadway and numerous Paper Mill credits as choreographer, associate choreographer, and performer). Most recently, she choreographed Lloyd Webber’s School of Rock and, in L.A.,Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman’s Harmony.
David Andrew Wilson (School of Rock, Sunset Boulevard, Cats, and the Love Never Dies U.S. tour) is music supervisor. Sam Davis (An American in Paris, Side Show), music directs and is a marathon keyboardist with an eight eight-piece orchestra (that includes a synthesizer programmer).
Tony nominee Alexander Dodge (Anastasia, A Gentleman’s Guide …) designed a no-frills set that serves little purpose, but excelled in his contemporary costuming, especially Parris’ skin-tighter-than-tight body contour pants, and dazzling footwear for three of the male principals.
Mark S. Hoebee is Paper Mill’s producing artistic director; Michael Stotts, is managing director. JPMorgan Chase & Co. is the major sponsor of Unmasked, Paper Mill’s 2019-2020 season is sponsored by Investors Bank.
Individual Unmasked tickets are $32-$122 and available at the Paper Mill box office, online at www.PaperMill.org, or by calling (973).376-4343. Groups of 10 or more may receive up to a 40% discount by calling (973)315-1680. Students may purchase day-of $20 rush tickets by phone or in person.
Production Photos by Jerry Dalia and Matthew Murphy