THE BLOG
02/19/2014 07:31 pm ET Updated Apr 21, 2014

First Nighter: Andrew Lloyd Webber's So Low 'Stephen Ward' and Solo 'Tell Me on a Sunday'

Andrew Lloyd Webber rules Brittania's West End and, as will come as a surprise to few, has for just about 40 years. Right now, three of his musicals are at hand. The Phantom of the Opera is in its zillionth year at the Majestic, Stephen Ward opened recently at the Aldwych and Tell Me on a Sunday is just in for a short revival.

No need to go into Phantom's shortcomings and longcomings -- perhaps the longest being its run here, in New York and everywhere else around the globe. Well, maybe it's worth going into it briefly in order to say something about the titled gentleman's melodies.

Over the decades, Lloyd Webber has been knocked for how Puccini-esque they sometimes seem. So what? If he's been cribbing from the great Italian composer or from anyone else for that matter, he's frequently done it with panache. Phantom boasts several beautiful tunes, as do many of the man's shows. Since he sees that they're frequently reprised repeatedly during the evening, they tend to stick in patrons' heads for days and now years.

However. It's likely no one will make the case convincingly about Stephen Ward, which leaves auditors with at least one question on their minds: What has happened to Lloyd Webber's gift? Many of the strains (pun intended) sound like Lloyd Webber, but almost none amount to anything. Perhaps "Too Close to the Flame," the last number in the score might redound to Lloyd Webber's benefit, but if it does, that may be due as much to what Alexander Hanson in the title role does with it as with its intrinsic appeal.

A continually nagging aspect of Lloyd Webber's songwriting is his choice of lyricists. Aside from T. S. Eliot for Cats, he's never really allied himself with top-drawer wordsmiths. Starting with school pal Tim Rice, he's worked with people who rarely rise to the inspired. It's more of the same with Stephen Ward, where familiar collaborator Don Black and playwright Christopher Hampton are credited with lyrics and libretto.

The songs persist in being prosaic throughout -- okay, at one point either Black or Hampton or both find a way to rhyme "malarkey" with "darky." That's something, but if any of the others is recalled with glee after their last chord has been struck, it might be "You Never Had It So Good." And there, as with Hanson's above-mentioned delivery, it's the treatment it gets. The ditty's unleashed at an S&M orgy staged by Stephen Mear with the kind of pelvis-pumping and whip-lashing bravado that rates not as brassy vulgarity but as strictly vulgar vulgarity.

As the Stephen Ward title suggests, Lloyd Webber and co-creators, including director Richard Eyre, have decided to revisit the 1960s John Profumo/Christine Keeler/Mandy Rice-Davies scandal that never might have occurred had osteopath/naughty-boy Ward not set himself up as catalyst for it.

Here, Ward is presented as a suave fast-talker taking too much amusement from the high-ranking people with whom he ingratiates himself to realize until too late that he's immersed himself in an inextricable predicament.

It looks as if the show's team thought that with Ward's politically grubby situation they'd make a cynical comment on British justice. (Ward is tried under the Sexual Offences Act and convicted, though he probably shouldn't have been.) But retelling the story with Daniel Quinn as Jack Profumo, Charlotte Spencer as Keeler and Charlotte Blackledge as Rice-Davies, the storytellers just plod and poke along until the eyes and ears glaze over.

In short: Like Lloyd Webber's musicals The Beautiful Game and Love Never Dies, this one isn't likely to cross the Atlantic to Broadway any time soon.

*********************************************************************

Tell Me on a Sunday was written by Lloyd Webber and Black as a 1980 BBC2 special starring Marti Webb. Sufficiently acclaimed, it was then paired with a Wayne Sleep dance piece, set to Lloyd Webber's Variation's on Niccolo Paganini's Caprice No. 24 in A Minor and offered under the rubric Song and Dance. Subsequently, Webb has performed it separately as Tell Me on a Sunday." She's doing so again in a short engagement at the Duchess after reviving it recently at the St. James.

It would a treat to welcome this concert version (featuring an on-stage band) with open arms and ears, which is certainly what the opening night audience did. As someone who through the bad timing of trips to London has never seen Webb on stage and was delighted to have the opportunity at last, I can only speculate that the vocal prowess Webb had that put her on the local show-biz map has lessened since earlier days.

The unnamed heroine of the sung-through solo show is an English woman who's come to New York to look for love and finds it in all the wrong places. The poor put-upon gal represents a large population of woebegone romance hopefuls. She's a patsy for every cad she meets. One lures her to Hollywood where romance fizzles. Another is married and stays that way, of course.

Lloyd Webber and Black take 15 or so of songs to express her desires and disappointments, including the title song, which is as poignant an embodiment of break-up blues as has been written. For rousers, there's the pungent opener, "Take That Look Off Your Face."

In the latter number, which is reprised at the end of the hour-long piece, the irate lady declares, "You don't know me." Truth is, it's the opposite. From the songs she's sung summarizing her amorous history, we know her very well. She's someone who's committed herself totally to finding happiness through a man. In the process, she's turned herself into that recognizable but not especially appealing figure: the willing victim.

Too often reaching for notes and decibel levels that resist capture, Webb--in a downhome red shirt not tucked in trousers--did hit the right acting notes. Curiously, she did her best chirping in her encore, "Unexpected Song." It certainly was an unexpected song for me, since I'd forgotten it's part of the score--or, as Webb told the audience, it's sometimes part of the score and sometimes isn't. It definitely was when Bernadette Peters played the role on Broadway.

In 2014 -- 34 years after Webb had adorned the television and stage versions -- she sang and performed the song with its irresistible unexpected rises and dips quite simply At that point, her delivery was unexpected and touchingly welcome.