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Pay, Ball!

U.K. heartthrob Michael Ball lives large in The Woman in White

By David Cote
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If there's one thing that Michael Ball has learned from playing Count Fosco in Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Woman in White, it's the bladder capacity of your average mouse. "They haven't been so bad here, but in London the mice were incontinent," Ball says about the furry critters he pets during the show. "I found out that even a tiny mouse can produce what feels like a pint of pee. And it stinks. So, everywhere around the stage, we've hidden wet wipes to scrub down." Rodent urine, which Ball heartily laughs off, is probably the least of the hardships that he must face in this production. To become Fosco, he dons a sweat-inducing fat suit and spends close to two hours in the makeup chair getting face and neck prosthetics to fatten up. His portly Italian count is key to the plot of the musical, which was adapted from the melodramatic 1860 novel by Wilkie Collins.

The Woman in White is only Ball's second appearance on Broadway—1991's Aspects of Love was the first—and any fans he won for his dreamboat turn in that vehicle will be hard-pressed to recognize him here. But that's fine with the actor, who parlayed his velvety baritone and his easygoing, laddish charisma into U.K. superstardom. His path actually resembles that of fellow heartthrob-crooner Michael Crawford, who also made a splash in a Lloyd Webber production (in his case, The Phantom of the Opera), and whose star was also short-lived stateside. Ball, who seems like he'd be equally at home draining a pint of Guinness as belting out a Broadway ballad, is frank about his low profile over here: "After Aspects, I never came back to Broadway—that would've been my route in."

Still, he has been lucky in some respects. While he had hoped to return to the Great White Way in the role he created in London's original Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the part went to Ral Esparza. (No worries there—the car will tank by the end of the year.) In September, prior to Woman in White previews, Ball also earned warm notices for a flamboyant appearance in Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience at City Opera.

Whatever the fortunes of Lloyd Webber's new show, Ball hopes to transfer his concertizing magic to American audiences. "To produce the kind of shows that I do, with a big orchestra and lighting design, you need a certain-size venue," Ball observes. "Before, I wouldn't have been brave enough to put on a concert. Once I've finished my stint with Woman in White, though, I'll try a couple of gigs in New York and see what happens."

The Woman in White is playing at the Marquis Theatre.

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