It takes guts to admit you were wrong — especially when you have been so right, so often.
Take composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, whose successes with “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Evita,” “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Sunset Boulevard,” and “School of Rock” have made him a musical-theater uber-Lord. Early on during the premiere of his multimedia, greatest-hits concert-cum-revue “Unmasked” — scripted in part by Richard Curtis, the pithy Brit author of films such as “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Love Actually” — Webber mentions musicals of his that he’s loved but that hadn’t exactly jelled with the public.
The composer appears in the show in video segments often (too often), narrating this career retrospective with quaint references to delis in Millburn, New Jersey, where Paper Mill Playhouse, the theater premiering “Unmasked,” is located. The video portions are cute, and even informative if you hadn’t read Webber’s autobiography of the same name, but they quickly become overused. Yhen again, without having Webber talk cleverly about how lyricist Tim Rice turned the composer onto Argentinian hero Eva Peron, or drop quick asides about Webber’s failed marriage to singer Sarah Brightman, there’d be no need for Curtis.
The monologue is pleasantly naturalistic and conversational, but the video itself looks strikingly unprofessional in opposition to the sleekness of the live musical performances by a cast of 13 inventively expressive singers, plus oddly punctuating dancers and a tight, small, string-filled orchestra. It almost seemed as if Curtis himself may have held the camera, perhaps prompting Webber to be funnier or to look more natural while walking down the street or playing a piano.
Along with warning the audience that the first four minutes of the show is a mash-up, for better or worse (“If you don’t like this… leave now”), Webber discusses 1975’s “Jeeves” with its book and lyrics by Alan Ayckbourn, and how that never caught the public’s imagination. Same with 2010’s “Love Never Dies.” Same with blowing the opportunity to write the film music for Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” by producing “dark” songs that eventually wound up in Webber’s s noir-ish “Sunset Boulevard.” There isn’t a lot of self-deprecation during “Unmasked,” but when it’s there, Webber and Curtis happily made the snarky best of it.
It’s all a bit of a set-up for the composer to discuss the still-so-recent, 2019 movie version of “Cats,” an unmitigated disaster both critically and financially. “The film came and went,” said Webber via video, with a sigh and a smirk, before introducing its songs as best heard “on stage, where they belong.”
That, ultimately, is the whole point of “Unmasked.” Bringing all of these tunes onstage, in a stripped-down fashion devoid of Hollywood’s CGI frippery and even a story line, allows the audience to hear Webber anew. Beyond Broadway and London’s West End, these are melodies that embrace the sonic dynamics of true drama. When all that unspools, musically, on the Paper Mill stage, “Unmasked” is coolly triumphant and entertaining.
Starting with the zig-zagging, Pentatonix-like four-minute-mashup of hits, “Unmasked” runs through Webber’s career in near-chronological form, even after his talking head opines that such linearity is distasteful.
There are occasionally shrill renditions of timeworn songs such as “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” and “Memory.” However, the ensemble’s imaginative arrangements (courtesy of music supervisor David Andrew Wilson and music director Michael Patrick Walker) save such moments from treacle, or worse, the over-grandiosity of which Webber’s compositions are often accused. The angular arrangement of “Everything’s Alright” from “Jesus Christ Superstar” and the subtle shadings of a “Sunset Boulevard” medley are particularly pixilating and innovative.
While Lloyd Webber vets such as Mauricio Martinez give “Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)” (from “Jesus Christ Superstar”) true grit in between bites of ham, Rema Webb lends husky soul vibes and lustrous clarity to the Phil Spector-like “Take That Look Off Your Face” (from “Tell Me on a Sunday”), the jazzily sauntering “With One Look” and the showy “As if We Never Said Goodbye,” both from “Sunset Boulevard.” Kudos, too, to Bronson Norris Murphy, whose shushing, nuanced take on “The Music of the Night” (“Phantom of the Opera”) and “Any Dream Will Do” (“Joseph and the Amazing Color Dreamcoat”) are genuine showstoppers.
For anyone missing more actorly performances, Jeremy Landon Hays conjures a spiteful and abusive character in his smug take on the ““Sunset Boulevard” theme song, while Alex Finke is believably lost but confident in “Another Suitcase in Another Hall” (“Evita”).
If this production of “Unmasked” could just get Curtis to cut through the video monologue quicker and with sharper snark, the show could be something along the lines of the exquisite “Sondheim on Sondheim” (which played on Broadway in 2010) or — dare I say it — another Lloyd Webber hit.