March 10, 2010
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There is much to enjoy in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new musical. The score is one of the composer's most seductive. Bob Crowley's design and Jack O'Brien's direction have a beautiful kaleidoscopic fluidity. And the performances are good. The problems lie within the book, chiefly credited to Lloyd Webber himself and Ben Elton, which lacks the weight to support the imaginative superstructure.
I should say that I have no truck with those ghoulish groupies who've seen The Phantom of the Opera 852 times and regard any sequel as equivalent to painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa. No masterpiece has been besmirched. But there is a crucial difference between the two shows. The hero of The Phantom was a crazed Svengali prepared to murder, and send chandeliers crashing, to further the career of his beloved Christine. In Love Never Dies, set 10 years later, he has become "Mr Y" – the mysterious owner of a Coney Island pleasure ground who lures Christine back for a well-paid gig. Romantic obsession may be common to both shows, but where one may feel sympathy for a doomed outsider, it is hard to feel much for an omnipotent impresario.
What the show lacks, in a nutshell, is narrative tension. For Christine, having discovered her employer's true identity, the big question is "to sing or not to sing?". The result is a foregone conclusion. Admittedly Christine's debt-ridden husband, Raoul, is tempted by the Phantom's taunting offer of an even bigger fee to take the family back to Paris; but Raoul is too much of a cipher to count. And, although Christine's arrival angers Meg Giry, who has previously been Mr Y's leading showgirl, moody Meg's revenge comes late in the day. Even the question of who fathered Christine's child is hardly a matter of nail-biting suspense: the show might be christened, literally, "Son of Phantom".
At his very best – as in Joseph, Jeeves, The Phantom of the Opera and Sunset Boulevard – Lloyd Webber's melodic inventiveness matches the material; here you have a welter of great tunes in search of a strong story. But at least the American setting gives Lloyd Webber the chance to explore a variety of musical idioms. The Coney Island Waltz echoes the discordant frenzy of Richard Rodgers's opening to Carousel. Bathing Beauty, climaxing in a decorous striptease, is a glorious pastiche of burlesque tackiness. And in the big romantic numbers, Lloyd Webber pays heartfelt tribute to Viennese operetta. It may be significant that The Merry Widow had its New York premiere in 1907, the year in which Love Never Dies is set. And both the Phantom's 'Til I Hear You Sing and Christine's Look With Your Heart could slot straight into Lehar. Even if Glenn Slater's lyrics are no more than serviceable, this is a score you want to hear again.
Lloyd Webber has also been exceptionally well served by his production team. Crowley's designs offer a beguiling mix of new technology and art nouveau. Coney Island itself becomes a pop Xanadu conjured up by swirling projections (the work of Jon Driscoll) full of shimmering towers, lakes and big dippers. The Phantom's lair is an orgy of writhing Jugendstil tendrils, bejewelled Klimt-like statuary and weird acolytes: my favourite was a creature, half-skeleton, half-woman, pushing what looked like an overloaded tea trolley.
Paule Constable's lighting adds to the show's visual appeal: she lends a Hopper-like gloom to a sub-pier bar and gives a broadwalk vista a Renoiresque glow. While offering a spectacular eyeful, O'Brien's production is also unafraid of simplicity: the staging of the climactic number, with Christine advancing down to the shell-shaped footlights, could hardly be more direct. From my distant seat in row O, the performances seemed fine. Ramin Karimloo's Phantom may not have the tragic quality of Michael Crawford's prototype but that is hardly his fault: the character is now more a mildly disabled Kane (of the Wellesian variety) than a social pariah. Sierra Boggess also displays a strong, vibrant soprano as Christine. Summer Strallen as the vengeful Meg and Liz Robertsan as her creepy, Mrs Danvers-like mum are both strongly defined.
In short, the show has much to commend it and the staging is a constant source of iridescent pleasure. But, as one of the lyrics reminds us, "diamonds never sparkle bright unless they are set just right". Although Lloyd Webber's score is full of gems, in the end a musical is only as good as its book. With a libretto to match the melodies, this might have been a stunner rather than simply a good night out.