By Howard Shapiro
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
We have lots of theater about love triangles. Andrew Lloyd Webber enlarges the idea in Aspects of Love, which opened Wednesday night in a beautifully designed and sung show on the Walnut Street Theatre mainstage. He gives us what you could call a quintangle – five people spanning three generations.
It's all a bit much – and a bit too little. Lloyd Webber's painfully swollen music (played with gusto by the Walnut's orchestra, which knows its way around a crescendo, or two, or maybe 70) begins quickly to sound like one tune that stretches out to show its threads; the largely sung-through show has little respite from melodrama and when it does, the lighter stuff seems awkward; the lyrics by Don Black and Charles Hart are not flat but flatulent (seeing is believing, love changes everything, yadda-yadda-etcetera), and emotions sometimes change line by line.
The show was successful in London, and opened on Broadway in 1990 to the sound of a thud -- it ran 399 performances and lasted just under a year. Aspects of Love is neither very good nor awful, but then, it is at best confused. The show takes itself very seriously but also winks here and there at uncomfortable content that deserves far better treatment – infatuations between cousins, generations, the same and the opposite sex, and over the decades. The musical, through its lyrics, tries to say something about these entanglements. Its creators, so far as I can tell, never really decided what.
That said, I had a great time at the Walnut because the production, directed by Bruce Lumpkin, is striking. Even if the show can't give any smart insight into the aspects of love, the production gives us clear
understanding of the aspects of theater. The performers' accents that come and go in this piece set in Europe in the '40s are my only complaint – the rest of it is nailed down and sumptuous, even the set changes: John Farrell's elegant, mostly white country house scenery is covered and uncovered with flowing scrims to change settings, by a crew dressed handsomely in Colleen Grady's flowing pastels.
That's the technical stuff. The voices in this Aspects of Love soar. Okay, you could say, so the actors rise high above material that languishes beneath them, and what's the point in that? The answer here is clear: performance. Jennifer Hope Wills, who appeared for a healthy stint of Broadway in another Lloyd Webber's record-setter, The Phantom of the Opera, plays the young actress struck by her stage-door Johnnie, portrayed by Charles Hagerty. His crystal tenor meets her wide-ranging soprano, and the chemistry is obvious. (Plus the two of them are lovable on stage, singing or not; Wills is alluring and cheeky, both in her performance and her actual cheekbones and Hagerty has a sweet presence that makes you want to quickly introduce him to your daughter.)
The roguish uncle of the boy is the forceful and great-sounding Walnut (and Broadway) regular Paul Schoeffler, his squeeze is played by Danielle G. Herbert and an offspring – I won't say of whom – is Jenna Brooke Scannelli. (Her younger self is played on different nights by Arin Edelstein and Claire Norden.)
When you mix high-quality stage talent with great design, you can get a fine production. As for Aspects of Love as a show, when you mix high-strung, poignant and smarmy, you get icky. So focus on the storytelling, not the story.
Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, firstname.lastname@example.org, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/howardshapiro. Hear his reviews at the Classical Network, www.wwfm.org.
Aspects of Love: Presented by Walnut Street Theratre, 825 Walnut St., through Oct. 23. Tickets: $10-$95. Information: 215-574-3550 or www.walnutstreettheatre.org.