The Review: Unmasked at Paper Mill Playhouse, NJ
I don’t know how to love this show. What to do, or how to be moved by this. It’s filled to the brim with Andrew Lloyd Webber superstar songs, that are solidly well-known from numerous Broadway hits, with many becoming part of our musical theatre culture. It’s well sung and dutifully presented. But in regards to Webber, in general, I’m not one of his biggest fans, but I do have my favorites – songs that come from mega-hit shows like Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita. The others, well, there are those within that are iconic and worthy of note, but don’t hit home in my heart. Some of them are a little too Phantom syrupy for my tastes or downright feline silly, most definitely not worth going to the movie theatres over the Christmas holiday season of last year. But even in the monster-sized overly-produced hits, including the lesser Starlight Express and the infamous Sunset Boulevard, there are gems and well crafted numbers to please pretty much everyone in the audience. We also get the man himself, Andrew Lloyd Webber (via pre-recorded commentary) taking us on a long stroll through his musical history, pointing out moments of note and sharing stories that will both captivate and interest even the most hesitant.
The show, clumsily named Unmasked: The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber, starts with a dire warning. I instantly took it as a sign, and not a good one (luckily, I was basically wrong to be as worried as I was- mostly). The “A Cappella Medley” dive-in is a ridiculous messy wash, making me even more nervous that this idea of attending Unmasked at Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey, might have been a big mistake. Huge, I thought, as the opening medley lessens all the hit songs into cheesy bits of cute lyrics sung with a low-end Glee attitude. Try to tune it out and ignore those first four minutes, as it does not represent what will come later in terms of technique and vocal power. The cast of twelve, I promise, are truly gifted and worthy of your attention. It’s also very clear as we wind our way through his cannon of hits why each and every one of these cast members were hired. There are no big names in the crowd, (if they ever want to bring this show to Broadway, it will certainly need some name recognition to survive) but almost everyone has their moment to utterly shine, and make us say to ourselves, “oh, yeah, I get it! That’s why!”
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat medley, featuring Mamie Parris (“Joseph’s Coat“) and Bronson Norris Murphy (“Close Every Door“, “Any Dream Will Do“) do the job well, although the show has little meaning or history with me. They do well, but fail to enlighten me why others are so enthusiastic about it all. Where as, Jesus Christ Superstar lives and breaths strongly in my musical memory (back when I listened to the movie soundtrack on a record player) as one of my all time favorites, and Nicholas Edwards’ “Superstar” filled me with hope. Amy Justman did a fine job with “I Don’t Know How to Love Him“, but it’s a difficult number to match the unique beauty of Yvonne Elliman. She is and will forever be iconic as her “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” has always been firmly associated to the beauty, ever since she played the Mary Magdalene role first on Broadway in 1971 at the Mark Hellinger Theatre and then cemented her position in the Norman Jewison directed movie version in 1973.
The main problem within this segment is the handsome but overwhelmed Mauricio Martinez and his attempt to enliven the very difficult yet electric “Gesthsemane“. His presence doesn’t radiate a Superstar status (like it did with Ted Neeley), and his warm vocals struggle to register the powerful crescendo of that compellingly emotional song. The historic comparative competition that exists in the recesses of our memory are just plain impossible to match or beat, particularly when Martinez’s voice doesn’t have the rough qualities required, and the performance doesn’t rise to the heights of our internal desires. It’s a shame, as the moment, as orchestrated by lighting designer Ed McCarthy (Public’s Southern Comfort) and sound designer Jon Weston (Broadway’s She Loves Me) could have been on fire, but we are quickly saved soon after with Mamie Parris and Alex Finke bringing forward a “High Flying Adored” and “Another Suitcase in Another Hall” that is filled with a style and energy that makes us forget the weakness of Jesus. Where Superstar falters, Evita soars, and we are thankful for the redirection of this walk with the wonderful Webber.
There’s an exciting variation from Variations, with rockstar inversions by the electric cellist Marta Bagratuni who rocks magnificently, paired with an overdone sexy shimmy by dancers Dave Schoonover and Angel Lozada. It’s almost as much fun as Alyssa Giannetti’s delicious “Unexpected Song” and the two and a half octave range required. There’s a Love Medley, which feels more monolithic than romantic, with Jeremy Landon Hays singing “Love Changes Everything” from Aspects of Love, Rema Webb performing “Take That Look Off Your Face” from a show I never really heard of, Tell Me on a Sunday, and the titular melodramatic “Love Never Dies” sung with solid strength by the wonderful Giannetti. But sadly the whole structure fails to register as particularly lovely or romantic. And then, I must admit Jennifer, we are given Cats. And I was skittish.
Macavity, Skimbleshanks, Mister Mistoffelees, and The Rum Tum Tugger triumph, delivering their joyous feline duty, giving us the solid and delightful reasons for Andrew Kober and (finally) Martinez’s inclusion in Unmasked. I was worried they would all come out in whiskers and tails, but thankfully scenic and costume designer Alexander Dodge (PMP’s Chasing Rainbows) and director/choreographer Joann M. Hunter (PMP’s Annie) knew better, letting the infectious songs speak for themselves and the black apparel give a lustrous shine to the proceedings. They float with an enthusiasm that is matched by the audiences embrace, and Act One ends on the most tender of “Memories“, thanks to the very fine work of Mamie Parris.
Act Two begins with a cheeky and silly “Here We Are on Broadway” once again making Webber’s moments more objectively product-like than they need to be. The cast parades around the stage in his show’s iconic outfits, feeling more like a cheap commercial than a musical moment. But luckily that doesn’t last long, and we get back into the serious bits of monumental beauty and honor. Rema Webb delivers a strong “With One Look” as well as a delicate “As If We Never Said Goodbye“. Interestingly, she is one of the only performers who didn’t really try to be the exact character from the musical, but performs the numbers in a more personal and powerful manner finding her own particular new way to dream. Jeremy Landon Hays in comparison, dutifully plays the role of the desperate writer when he rolls out the bombastic “Sunset Boulevard” with intensity and force. These are their moments; the reasons they are included here, and they both take their opportunity in the spotlight to shine.
“Amigos Para Siempre” operatically delivers a strong duet with the iconic video moment from the Barcelona Olympics, and Love Never Dies returns, living up to its name with Bronson Norris Murphy’s “Til I Hear You Sing“. I honestly wasn’t sold on the sequel musical that has yet to make its way to Broadway, but I’m still open to be convinced. Alex Finke, though, makes us believe in Webber’s magic touch once again, bringing her beautiful angelic voice to full force with Requiem‘s “Pie Jesu“. She gives it a heartfelt gentleness and glory that made for one of the most perfectly performed moments to hit that wide playhouse stage.
But a tribute show of Webber is not complete until The Phantom of the Opera is wheeled out. And courtesy of the gorgeous vocal talent of Bronson Norris Murphy and Alyssa Giannetti playing the iconic leads (with a wonderful “Prima Donna” performance of Amy Justman), “All I Ask of You” and “The Music of the Night” brings it all to a wonderfully rich end thanks to some fine work by music supervisor David Andrew Wilson (West End’s The Woman in White) and music director Sam Davis (Broadway’s An American in Paris). Why anyone allowed “The Song That Everybody Hates” find any space in this evening of Webber, I’m not sure, as it’s almost cringeworthy. But I guess it is a way to “Stick It to the Man“, a surprisingly energetic closing, courtesy of Andrew Kober, that makes it clear beyond his “Skimbleshanks“, that this song is truly the reason Kober is here to deliver. And we are most guitar-playing pleased.
As a whole, Unmasked makes sense, although a better title would enlist a stronger pull. Co-written and devised with Richard Curtis (“Notting Hill“, “Bridget Jones’s Diary“), Unmasked is sung and delivered forth beautifully, with moments that make us remember why the music man is so iconic. Webber’s video segments, although somewhat clumsy in their filming (do we really need to see his shoes walking the streets?), the tidbits and treats he give are tasty and flavorful. I’m sure they are catnip to the truly devoted, and charming to the otherwise unsure. I’m glad I made the journey from Penn Station to Milburn’s Paper Mill Playhouse, as the show reminds me of my younger musical theatre junkie self that listened and loved the recordings of Cats and Jesus Christ Superstar. There is pleasure in this stroll, and we couldn’t have a better guide to lead us through.