Over the years, Andrew Lloyd Webber has co-written (with Tim Rice and other lyricists) some timeless, show-stopping ballads, including “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” (from “Jesus Christ Superstar”), “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” (from “Evita”), “Memory” (from “Cats”) and “The Music of the Night” (from “The Phantom of the Opera”). All of these, and others, are included in “Unmasked: The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber,” which is having its world premiere at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn through March 1.
It’s, in other words, an evening of showstoppers.
The thing about a theatrical showstopper, though, is that it’s not quite the same when it is extracted from the show it stops. You need to build up an emotional investment in its character, and the story that it’s a part of, for it to truly have all of its power. So while many of the 12 cast members of “Unmasked” sing with impressive skill, the show, as a whole, is not as fulfilling as the best musicals of Webber’s remarkable half-century career.
It is still quite enjoyable in its own right, though, and, needless to say, a must-see for Webber fans, particularly since he serves as host and narrator of the evening himself (via pre-recorded videos) and has written some new songs for it.
“Devised” and co-written by Richard Curtis (best known for writing and/or directing films such as “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Bridget Jones’s Diary” and “Love Actually”) and directed and choreographed by JoAnn M. Hunter (whose many credits include “School of Rock,” which Webber co-wrote, on Broadway), “Unmasked” is a slick, fast-paced revue with an onstage band. It is also, as its name implies, a behind-the-scenes look at Webber’s career, with the man himself genially telling stories about how certain songs and musicals came to be, and even making some jokes (including one about the recent flop movie version of “Cats”) at his own expense.
His segments tend to be full of breezy anecdotes rather than deep introspection (or, really, introspection of any kind). But he does have some interesting tidbits to offer, and if you’re the kind of person who wants to know how a tune originally written for “The Little Mermaid” (which Webber didn’t end up contributing to) ended up as “With One Look,” from “Sunset Boulevard,” this is the show for you.
The songs are not arranged chronologically, though numbers from certain shows are grouped together and semi-staged. Not surprisingly, without costumes and elaborate staging, most of the “Cats” songs fall flat. But other segments work better, including a quartet of songs from “Sunset Boulevard” (with Rema Webb excelling in the Norma Desmond role) and a medley of love songs capped by Alyssa Giannetti’s stunning take on the “Love Never Dies” title song (yet another show-stopping ballad, which would be better known if its musical had been more successful).
One new song is “Here We Are on Broadway,” a novelty tune that allows many of Webber’s most famous characters — Evita and Jesus Christ and the Phantom on so on, plus “Cats” poet T.S. Eliot — to take the stage together.
Another new comedic number, “The Song That Everybody Hates,” is saved for late in the evening, where, oddly, it undercuts the effectiveness of the infinitely more serious song it precedes, “The Music of the Night.”
There’s only one more song following “The Music of the Night”: “Stick It to the Man,” the surly anthem of rebellion from “School of Rock” that is — again, kind of oddly — different in tone from virtually everything that has preceded it. But “Stick It to the Man” also serves as a reminder, perhaps, that Webber, despite his mainstream, middle-of-the-road success, has sometimes been a thumb-nosing maverick, too.
The Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn will present “Unmasked: The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber” through March 1. Visit papermill.org.
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