MILLBURN, N.J. — Sometimes, Andrew Lloyd Webber says from a video screen onstage, a production doesn’t come together the way its creators hope.
“Which doesn’t actually mean the show is appalling,” he continues, sensibly. “It just means that it didn’t work because the whole thing didn’t sort of coalesce.”
“Unmasked: The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber” — a multimedia concert and career retrospective, making its world premiere at the Paper Mill Playhouse here — is a far cry from appalling. Unless of course you are allergic to Lloyd Webber’s music, in which case you might run screaming the instant an usher hands you a souvenir paper mask.
But even if “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Evita,” “Cats” and the rest of his shows are your jam, this one runs the risk of underwhelming, despite the technical excellence of the singing and the rich sound of the onstage orchestra. At a presumably somewhat larval stage in its development, this would-be fan pleaser of an evening is weighed down by seriousness.
Directed and choreographed by JoAnn M. Hunter, with music direction by Michael Patrick Walker, “Unmasked” is larded with earworm hits and the occasional oddity. Nothing wrong with that. But the live portion of the proceedings, carried out by a cast of 13 on an almost utilitarian set (by Alexander Dodge), makes the mistake of reverence when what’s needed is fun. The best way to honor Lloyd Webber’s music is to have a good time with it.
More peculiar is the glaringly unpolished recorded video of Lloyd Webber in which he narrates his history, popping up between numbers on a screen that descends to conceal the orchestra.
From the moment he gives the preshow announcement, threatening to strangle anyone who records the performance (he, at any rate, gets points for irreverence), this device has huge potential to charm. As with the video of Stephen Sondheim a decade ago in his own stage anthology, “Sondheim on Sondheim,” Lloyd Webber’s stories about the making of his musicals function as the connective tissue of the show, written and devised with Richard Curtis (“Notting Hill” and the contentious classic “Love Actually”).
Though it is uncredited in the program, Curtis also did the video for the show, which reads like a rehearsal tape, not a finished product: terrible lighting, and shaky camera work that goes in and out of focus. More fundamentally, bizarre editing gets in the way of Lloyd Webber speaking straight to the audience, by cutting at random to a second camera for distancing profile views.
Let him look us in the eye. But also — and I realize this is tough because he is the boss, and he is not an actor — please get him to relax so he can regale us more comfortably, not race through anecdotes and step on his own punch lines. (He does get in a good joke about the recent “Cats” film debacle, though.)
The context Lloyd Webber provides is informative, if only glancingly personal; for childhood stories and the like, his entertaining 70th-birthday memoir from 2018, also titled “Unmasked,” is on sale at the concession stand. So are CDs of its compilation album, “Unmasked,” whose song list is not the same as this medley-heavy concert’s.
Vocally, the evening is a showcase for Lloyd Webber veterans, including Mamie Parris, with both “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” and “Memory”; Mauricio Martinez, scaling the heights of “Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say),” from “Jesus Christ Superstar”; and Alyssa Giannetti, with a particularly pretty “Love Never Dies,” from the ill-fated sequel to “Phantom.”
Rarer, though, are numbers that feel connected to a character, given an actor’s spin. Alex Finke accomplishes that with “Another Suitcase in Another Hall,” from “Evita”; Jeremy Landon Hays with “Sunset Boulevard”; and Andrew Kober, playfully, with “Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat.”
You can feel the rush of oxygen each time a song gets an interpretation rather than a recitation. If “Unmasked” is going to do justice to its material, it needs much more of that vitality.
UnmaskedThrough March 1 at Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn, N.J.; 973-376-4343, papermill.org. Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes.
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