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Theatre People

Jan 16, 2012

Tristan Lutze

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Review: Love Never Dies

Sequels are rarely easy. The temptation to recapture the success of a film, book, game, play or musical is understandable, and can be borne of many desires; financial, creative or benevolent. But regardless of the purpose, the risks are significant.

Unfortunately, sequels rarely reach the heights of their predecessors, failing by either staying too close to the formula of the original or deviating too far from it. It is a difficult line to walk.

For Andrew Lloyd Webber, the desire to create a sequel to not only his most popular musical, but to one of the most popular musicals of all time, is understandable. Up until opening night of Love Never Dies in Sydney, the previously prolific composer hadn’t had a new show open in the harbour city for 20 years.

By now, even Lloyd Webber must understand how difficult sequels can be. Love Never Dies has faced considerable adversity in its short life. Despite the heritage of the characters, planned productions have been cancelled, the West End production was closed temporarily for rewrites and an impassioned group of ‘Phantom phans’ even took to protesting the existence of the show.

But it is this Australian production, according to the creator, in which the show has had its destiny realised. Directed by Simon Phillips, with designs by Gabriela Tylesova, the visceral breadth of this production has evolved into something finally worthy of its predecessor.

And it’s here, in the spectacle of the production’s theatricality, that the show really works.

The set is a masterpiece, perfectly evoking the grandeur of Coney Island’s carnival atmosphere while suggesting an underlying menace in every distressed support beam of the timber walkways that circle and frame the stage.

Revolves are used frequently, delivering transformed set pieces on cue, and while the elongated, oversized nature of the giant Phantom mask that reappears again and again unfortunately diminishes the impact of the central character’s appearance, it is still a triumph of design and construction.

Just as impressive as Gabriela Tylesova’s sets are her costumes. From the layered, button-down formality of the period dress to the visual extravagance of the Coney Island carnival folk, the costuming again and again highlights the colour and texture of the score, bringing it to life with subtlety and nuance.

Subtlety and nuance, however, are sadly not prevailing qualities of the show itself. The plot, in which the Phantom (Ben Lewis) invites the now-maternal Christine (Anna O’Byrne) back into his world (this time in New York’s previously-grand theme park Coney Island), and forces her to choose between himself and Raoul (Simon Gleeson), never complicates itself with any depth.

There is only a single subplot to speak of, and it’s one which rarely threatens to become engaging.

Most notably absent, though, is the ominous sense of risk that so wonderfully crept beneath the original. In The Phantom of the Opera, people are killed, the Phantom appears and vanishes at will and the threat of something terrible happening rarely abates. Let’s not forget that the iconic chandelier itself is the result of one of these threatening moments.

In Love Never Dies, we are rarely provided with any tension, any risk or any stakes to speak of at all. From the moment Christine realizes she must choose between the two men in her life, we’re given a flood of exposition that only seem to serve to make the decision much easier for her.

When the Phantom makes a ‘high-stakes’ bet with Raoul, neither character is at risk of losing anything they hadn’t already comprehended losing.

Of the two major ‘twists’ that the show hangs its Act One and Act Two climaxes from, one is no surprise at all and the other seems rushed both to and from. Lloyd Webber and Ben Elton’s book, and Glenn Slater’s lyrics, appear to want to get out of the way of the music as often as possible.

The score, though, is suitably grandiose, filling the Capitol Theatre again and again with moments of instrumental and vocal magnificence. The orchestrations are rich and full and, led by Conductor Guy Simpson, the orchestra could not have sounded better.

Only one moment disrupts this mellifluous blanket of musicalisation: electric guitars screaming into wild life as the Phantom steals away to a dark hall of mirrors and freaks. Certainly, the screeching effect is unsettling in the way it was no doubt supposed to be, but it’s so anachronistic as to take us out of the moment entirely. Were there no instruments already in the pit that could have been used to similar effect?

While it is a theoretically admirable decision for Lloyd Webber to have restricted the musical references to The Phantom of the Opera’s score to only two or three small moments, the result creates a disconnect between that show and this successor. The Phantom is a being with firmly established musical themes. Certainly we don’t want to see "Music of the Night" re-performed with new lyrics, but suggestions of such familiar sequences could have formed instant, emotional connections between the two shows. After all, if Lloyd Webber had wanted Love Never Dies to be a truly standalone show, why use the characters from Phantom at all?

As much as this production is a triumph of theatricality and design, it is also a triumph of casting.

Ben Lewis’s Phantom is determined and cold, yet fragile. From the very first moments of the show, his spectacular vocal ability drew gasps from the audience. As a performer, he is let down by the one-dimensionality of his character in the show’s book (a concern shared by Simon Gleeson’s Raoul and Maria Mercedes’ Madame Giry), but compensates with the strength of his presence and the sheer power of his voice.

No less spectacular is Anna O’Byrne as Christine. She is youthful in voice and beauty, yet convinces as a protective mother and as a woman torn by passion and love. Her voice navigates Lloyd Webber’s notes as though, like the Phantom for Christine, they were written for her. It is left to her to rescue the borderline pointlessness of the show’s plot and to inject a sense of something at stake, and she creates this effortlessly.

While Simon Gleeson and Maria Mercedes as Raoul and Madame Giry respectively struggle to overcome the sheer single-notedness of the writing, Sharon Millerchip shines as Meg, filling her with a tortured combination of ambition and naïveté. In particular, her Act Two number "Bathing Beauty" is a glorious showstopper.

Mention must go also to Jack Lyall, the young actor playing Christine’s son Gustav on opening night, as he navigated the broadly-drawn role without any of the pantomimic saccharine that child actors are occasionally known for.

The hard work the actors manage to do to overcome the limitations in the score through their performances is sadly damaged on occasion by Simon Phillips’ direction. While he undeniably makes excellent use of the set and has both it and the performers dancing around each other with balletic deftness, he denies the characters any real moments of subtlety. A scene can’t seem to end without at least one character huffing and stamping from the stage, and background action becomes distracting on a number of occasions.*

Conversely, Graeme Murphy’s choreography is true theatrical alchemy, mixing flawlessly with the music, costumes, set and story in a constantly breathtaking series of both featured dances and intricate background movement.

The Phantom of the Opera is an icon, as a character and as a show, but the limited textual and musical references to the original, the thin-by-comparison story and the lack of any truly memorable musical pieces make Love Never Dies less of a sequel and more of an epilogue.

While Andrew Lloyd Webber’s concept and execution fall short of the inevitable expectations created by developing a follow-up to such an iconic musical, the breathtaking theatricality of the event, and the flawless performances make it a memorable visit to Coney Island, and back into the world of the Phantom.

*Opening night was victim to a number of technical issues, some of which affected lighting states and the concealment of certain areas of the stage. I’ve done my best to determine which aspects of the set and of the direction were unintended for the audience.

 

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