March 12, 2010
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In recent weeks I have received e-mails and Facebook messages from fans of The Phantom of the Opera, outraged that Andrew Lloyd Webber and his collaborators should have written a sequel at all, never mind one that travestied the original characters and relationships.
They’re not entirely unjustified. It’s possible that heroine Christine’s beloved Raoul, now her husband, might turn out to be a wastrel and a drunkard; less conceivable that her single kiss with the Phantom 10 years ago should have borne a son. And, of course, the bogeyman resurrected for the sequel is now a staple of popular culture. Enough liberties, then, to provoke high dudgeon in devotees but not necessarily to irritate newcomers seeing this musical on its own terms.
But what are those terms? Lloyd Webber and director Jack O’Brien seem resolved to repudiate simple continuation; nevertheless, it is hard to engage much with the proceedings without an initial emotional stake from the original story. The show begins with a prologue number that almost acts as an anti-overture, followed by some whirling CGI visual effects and a sequence of spectacles that seems to telescope one of Cirque du Soleil’s lesser offerings into about three minutes.
This establishes the setting as turn-of-the-century Coney Island in New York, where a new complex of delights and bizarrerie has just been opened by one Mr Y – “mystery”, geddit? – only there is no mystery whatever.
The Phantom (for it is he) engages Christine to travel from Paris and sing in his theatre, thus igniting a whole tangle of love and loyalty conflicts: the Christine/Raoul/Phantom triangle is revived, the question of young Gustave’s true paternity no sooner raised than it is admitted, and Christine’s former Parisian opera friend Meg Giry is now besotted with the Phantom under the encouragement of her mother, who has in effect become Mrs Danvers from Rebecca, the jealous housekeeper. What happens? Nothing much, nor do we care, and nor does Ben Elton (principal writer of a script partly based on Frederick Forsyth’s novella The Phantom of Manhattan). Someone dies, some others are reconciled, others still just hang around or disappear. Big deal.
As for the meat of the show, there is a yawning chasm between a score that is determinedly, persistently soaring and majestic (although a number of arrangements sound cheaply over-synthesised beyond the necessities of fairground pastiche) and lyrics that seldom rise even to banality. “Who concealed you safe away,” Mme Giry demands of the Phantom in a perfunctory explanation of his survival, “SMUGgled YOU up TO CalAIS?” Lyricist Glenn Slater has little or no sense of metrical stress. Lloyd Webber’s score is, as I say, determined but, less than two hours after the final curtain, it was unmemorable. What I do remember are a number of occasions when a vocal line flukes up or down an octave for a single line before reverting, as if a bad karaoke singer were belting it out in an unhelpful key.
Ramin Karimloo does a solid job as the Phantom, and Sierra Boggess as Christine has such a powerful and clear upper register that bats are probably concussing themselves all along the Strand, but Summer Strallen is wasted as Meg and that fine actor Joseph Millson may in later years care to excise the role of Raoul from his résumé. Bob Crowley designs some fantastical sights for the Phantom’s eyrie and a selection of Americana that includes an Edward Hopperesque bar-room, all of which Paule Constable then half-hides in shadowy, “atmospheric” lighting. I can’t see it winning over the “Love Should Die” Facebook group.