LONDON - Reviewers were largely seduced, rather than scandalized, on Friday by the latest musical from Andrew Lloyd Webber — surely the first in the impresario's highly successful career to include an orgy scene.
"Stephen Ward" tells the story of the Profumo Affair, a 1963 scandal that almost toppled the British government of the day. Its title character is the well-connected London osteopath who introduced Britain's war secretary, John Profumo, to a young model named Christine Keeler.
When it emerged that Keeler had slept with both Profumo and a Soviet naval attache, the collision of sex, espionage and Cold War politics caused a sensation. Profumo resigned, while Ward was arrested, accused of pimping, tried and convicted of living off "immoral earnings." He died from an overdose of sleeping pills before her could be jailed.
The musical, which opened Thursday at London's Aldwych Theatre, is Lloyd Webber's first new show since the "Phantom of the Opera" sequel "Love Never Dies" in 2010. Book and lyrics are by Christopher Hampton and Don Black — the team that wrote Lloyd Webber's "Sunset Boulevard."
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph found the show "a delightful surprise," fueled by "a bracing mixture of humour and indignation," while the Daily Mail's Quentin Letts said Lloyd Webber had produced "a powerful musical not about revolution but about defeat and decay."
Dominic Maxwell in the Times of London found this guide to the seamy side of early-60s Britain "so thick with events ... that it plays more like a lavishly scored Wikipedia entry than a fully-fledged drama" — though he said that made it "far too pacey to be dull."
Some of Lloyd Webber's biggest hits, such as "The Phantom of the Opera," are full of lush romance. "Stephen Ward" is far spikier, almost a polemical musical. The show sets out to spear hypocrisy, arguing that Ward was made the fall-guy for the scandal by an embarrassed and complicit Establishment. Offstage, Lloyd Webber has called Ward's conviction a perversion of justice and backed a court challenge that is seeking to overturn it.
Onstage, the play's opening number, sung by Alexander Hanson as Ward, is "Human Sacrifice" — and that's how the character sees himself.
The anger is interspersed with a good deal of humour, creating an erratic but somehow endearing show that depicts a time when the strait-laced 1950s were about to give way to the swinging 60s, at least for the wealthy and well-connected.
An aristocratic orgy scene plays out to the jaunty song "You've Never Had it So Good" — the second line is: "You've never had it so often." It is performed by an underwear-clad, whip-toting ensemble with such good-natured British wink-and-nudge that it almost seems wholesome.
Another scene, involving grandees chasing a scantily-clad woman, is like something out of Benny Hill's slapstick TV series.
Charlotte Spencer's Keeler gives flashes of the vulnerable teenager — Keeler was 19 when she had her affair with Profumo — beneath the femme fatale image she was given by the press, and Charlotte Blackledge gives a sparky performance as her friend Mandy Rice-Davies.
Hanson is a charismatic lead, but Ward's true character and motives remain a mystery. Was he the genial hedonist he claimed to be, or something murkier?
And the show only fitfully touches the emotions. Most critics agreed that the most moving song was "I'm Hopeless When it Comes to You" — sung wonderfully by Joanna Riding as the minor character of Profumo's wronged wife.
Standing on stage at Thursday's curtain call, Lloyd Webber spoke emotionally of his pride in the show. It's clearly a project close to his heart.
It's not an obvious hit. But neither, on first appearances, were shows based on supernatural melodrama, feline verses or the life of an Argentine politician — and those turned out to be "The Phantom of the Opera", "Cats" and "Evita."
Jill Lawless can be reached at http://Twitter.com/JillLawless