March 22, 2010
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Andrew Lloyd Webber has created a monster
Love Never Dies - Adelphi Theatre, London WC2
The Phantom of the Opera has always, I have felt, had something of the night about him, not to say something of the serial murderer. In Andrew Lloyd Webber's less-than-stomping sequel to his adventures, he becomes a Coney Island impresario and is about as satanic as Michael Howard. Lloyd Webber's metaphor for bad-tempered musician with a complex about his looks and a liking for brunette sopranos becomes explicit, and thus pedestrian.
Having opened in 1986, The Phantom of the Opera has been running in most of the known universe ever since. It tells the story of a beautiful singer named Christine Daaé whose heart is torn between the deformed creep who teaches her to sing in a Paris opera house and a handsome count called Raoul, who has a lot of nice things going for him. The Phantom reacts very badly to losing out to him. It is a trashy tale but - ranging from the Hammer Horror Gothic to the romantic, with some clever pastiche of operetta along the way - Lloyd Webber's music lived up or down to it perfectly. As a night out, Phantom is as dark and dense as oxtail soup.
Love Never Dies is consommé, in comparison. The love triangle is reconfigured ten years on in the US, where the Phantom, now no more than a recluse, invites Christine to sing, her voice, one gathers, being the only trigger for his emotional, and perhaps actual, orgasms. She agrees because she needs the money. Raoul has taken to the drink and the gambling tables. Can the masked one win her back and assert the paternity of her son, Gustave?
Coney Island is a visually evocative setting, and made the most of by projected images (although there is nothing here technically that the National hasn't been doing for years), but musically it does not help Lloyd Webber in the way the opera house did. Instead of cod Merry Widow, we get cod 1920s vaudeville and, in one extraordinary breach of continuity, a piece of rock opera. Christine and the Phantom's first duet flops and is immediately succeeded by another, "Once Upon Another Time", which is better but has the unfortunate consequence of reminding audiences that the "other time" was Phantom of the Opera.
The title song, with its blandest (and untruest) of sentiments, is belted out with great conviction by Sierra Boggess near the end. We know it is a success because Christine tells the Phantom it is beautiful ("every word, every note") and the Phantom agrees with her. It temporarily sears itself into your eardrum, but I could not hum it an hour later.
It is not merely the music that is a let-down. The story and its execution are of a lower order than in the original. Melodrama becomes domestic soap opera; indicatively, the one death comes right at the end and is half-hearted. The only theatrical surprise is when the Phantom turns up as a barman in the Edward Hopper-style bar where Raoul is drowning his sorrows. Whereas the first act of Phantom ends with the crash of a chandelier, in this it concludes with the Phantom throwing his papers in the air in frustration and a hissy fit from the mother of Meg, the showgirl who was Christine's best friend in Paris and has turned into Anne Baxter in All About Eve. The mother-and-daughter pair simply do not have the tunes to add much psychotic zeal to proceedings, although Liz Robertson in her Whistler's Mother outfit and Summer Strallen in a striptease routine add something visually.
Ramin Karimloo works hard under the mask and toupee, but it is an emasculated part and he has less stage presence even than Joseph Millson as Raoul. Only Boggess emerges as a real star. Her soaring voice will endure longer than these songs, although I admired "Dear Old Friend", a hymn to social hypocrisy in the Sondheim spirit. The choreography is pedestrian; the sets, when they are not being projected, underwhelming.
The Phantom's alias in Love Never Dies, taken presumably to fox the Clouseaus of the Paris police department or else the Ellis Island immigration officers, is Mr Y. That should be Y O Y - as in, "Why did we need a sequel?" To challenge Phantom of the Opera's detractors, perhaps. Next to Love Never Dies it does look a masterpiece.
Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times.