If Wilkie Collins's novel "The Woman in White" started one genre, Andrew Lloyd Webber's soggy musical adaptation of it provides sufficient justification for killing off another.
The era of the titillating "sensation novel" was presaged by Collins's hugely popular 1860 mystery. And it is the creative exhaustion of an often drearier form -- the literary musical drama -- that is signaled by Lloyd Webber's latest work, which opened last night at the Marquis Theatre.
The likelihood is minuscule that musical theater actually will take a breather from this grandiose variety of adaptation: The library shelves, it seems, are just too stacked with old titles waiting to be scored in waltz tempo. So here we are, with the latest product off the assembly line, a breathlessly florid, virtually flavorless show that will fill some seats but fewer hearts.
"The Woman in White," which made its London debut a year ago, is not a fiasco, really. Some claim it's the best Lloyd Webber score in some time. I'm not sure that's saying much. Although some numbers evoke the ripe romanticism of an old movie soundtrack, an awful lot of the music feels like generic Lloyd Webber material. Strains of "The Phantom of the Opera" keep wafting in.
The director is that old pro Trevor Nunn, of Royal Shakespeare Company and "Les Miserables" fame, and his presence guarantees a certain baseline panache. In this case, he seems to invest most of his energy in directing the set, a series of broad, concave screens onto which designer William Dudley flashes computer-generated scenery: panoramic views of lush country estates, dank streetscapes and dark train depots.
What you've got here, then, is something that's just not very special. The images on those screens may continuously move, but they're the only aspects of the show that do. As drawn by Charlotte Jones, crafter of the musical's book, the characters in this Victorian thriller remain pale and barely palatable; you're given little opportunity to make real contact with them. Even the evening's heroine, Marian, played by the English stage star Maria Friedman, cannot quite marshal her supple vocalizing in an affecting way. She reaches for the rafters in lieu of reaching us.
More detrimental is the rococo performance of Michael Ball, as the rotund comic villain Count Fosco. Ball plays him as if he were a large, succulent slice of ham, or maybe one of those prancing pieces of oversize furniture in "Beauty and the Beast." No doubt, it's a tall order he's got, trying to drape this mirthless piece in some amusing froufrou. But the project all but maroons him. He's up to his padded torso in prissy caricature.
Jones, to some degree, piggybacks on Collins's novelistic device of dividing the narration among various characters. Onstage, the story is conveyed through the eyes of Marian, Fosco and the young hero, Walter Hartright (Adam Brazier), who's come to the mansion in which Marian lives with her half sister, Laura (Jill Paice). In the twilight, Walter sees an ethereal young woman in white -- Laura's apparent double, played by Angela Christian -- floating in the mist, setting in motion both the love story and the crime story. Beautiful Laura, heiress to a fortune and in love with Walter, is married off instead to a schemer (Ron Bohmer) in cahoots with Fosco. To intensify the pathos, one supposes, the musical embellishes Collins's story by having plain, vivacious Marian fall in love with Walter, too.
For all the intricate plotting, "The Woman in White" is not particularly suspenseful. The predictable swells in the music and unfortunate doggerel in the lyrics (by David Zippel) produce a strangely narcotizing effect. Don't feel badly if, during the first 40 minutes or so, you find yourself glancing at the program to remind yourself which musical you've been sitting through.
There is, of course, always the picture show on the set's busily circulating walls to signal that we're in murky old England. What "The Woman in White" never explains, though, is what a song is doing in its chilly heart.
The Woman in White, music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by David Zippel, book by Charlotte Jones. Directed by Trevor Nunn. Set, costumes and video design, William Dudley; lighting, Paul Pyant; sound, Mick Potter; orchestrations, David Cullen. With Walter Charles. Approximately 2 hours 30 minutes. At the Marquis Theatre, Broadway and West 46th Street. Call 212-307-4100 or visit www.ticketmaster.com.