by Hedy Weiss
'NOW AND FOREVER: THE MUSIC OF ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER'
When: Through March 17
Where: Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Dr., Lincolnshire
Info: (847) 634-0200; www.MarriottTheatre.com
Run time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission
Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber hardly needs introducing. Suffice it to say he is the English composer who, starting in the 1970s, began beating Broadway at its own quintessentially American game.
And yes, it has long been easy to turn the man's work into a grand cultural joke -- with a list of musicals inspired by stories about a young slave in Egypt, a herd of anthropomorphic felines, that rock star-like guy who died on the cross, the fashionista populist of Buenos Aires, an aging film star dreaming of her final close-up and, of course, that disfigured opera impresario and his catapulting chandelier.
But the truth is, Webber is a phenomenal melodist whose "pop operas," have thrilled hundreds of millions worldwide for four decades. And while you can easily accuse him of bombast and hyperbole, the sheer range of his work -- drawing on grand opera, operetta, country-western, tango, hard rock, torchy ballad, classic love song and more -- is staggering. And with the Marriott Theatre world premiere of "Now and Forever: The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber," we have a mega-revue fit for a knight -- a show that, given the array of powerhouse voices on stage, could easily be performed at an opera house, but might be far more at home at a place like the glitzy Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas.
Created by Marc Robin (the director-choreographer who has amassed 16 Jeff Awards), and the Marriott's lead artistic director, Aaron Thielen -- with elaborate and varied dance interludes choreographed by Robin, Harrison McEldowney and Matt Raftery -- the show, which features a cast of 18, thrives on a "Can you top this?" aesthetic. And each time you think there is nowhere else to go it pulls out another stop.
Frankly, I am not a big fan of that approach. And with few exceptions (like the more intimate, but hugely engaging Rodgers and Hammerstein revue now at the Mercury Theatre), I think musical theater songs are best heard in the context of the work for which they were created. But "Now and Forever" is such a high-power show biz machine, filled with so many knockout turns, you can't help but be sucked into it.
A few glorious examples: The performance of "Love Changes Everything" (from "Aspects of Love"), with Ben Jacoby, Max Quinlan and Travis Taylor making a bid for becoming the next incarnation of "The Three Tenors." The delicate-boned, soaring coloratura Erin Stewart who pairs with Quinlin for "The Phantom of the Opera" and entones final scales that are downright otherworldly. Susan Moniz, an amazing actress, who holds the audience in emotional thrall with her searing renditions of "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again" (also from "The Phantom") and "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" (from Webber's finest show, "Evita"). Quinlan, again, in a fierce take on "Gethsemane" (from "Jesus Christ Superstar"). And an absolutely enchanting tap spectacular (courtesy of Robin), with the enchanting dancer Melissa Zaremba backed by Jameson Cooper, Michael Darnell and hipster Raymond Interior.
Linda Balgord, who built her career in Chicago, and has since had many high-profile turns on Broadway, has a big voice with a huge range. But she seems to have acquired the affectations of Judy Garland in late career (she might be ideal for the recent New York hit "End of the Rainbow"), and brought too much of this quality to bear on "With One Look" (from "Sunset Boulevard") and "Memory" (from 'Cats").
There is a great deal more here (with strong work by singers Brian Bohr, Stephanie Binetti and Catherine Lord, as well as dancers Lauren Blane, Ellen Green, Monique Haley, Luke Manley and Sam Rogers.
And then there's that chandelier, which doesn't quite soar as it might at the Paris Opera House, but gives off plenty of heat and light.