Time Out Melbourne
May 30, 2011
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Love Never Dies
Like many sequels, Love Never Dies feels haunted by the past. Anything attempting to follow up a success like Phantom of the Opera would risk invidious comparisons, and Love must do so essentially without a map. It's something easily forgotten, but a key strength of Andrew Lloyd Webber's original production was the storyline adapted from Gaston Leroux. The basic plot of the Phantom and his love for the talented ingénue Christine is a timeless mix of horror and romance, with rich characterisation and imagery essentially there for the taking. Love Never Dies, by contrast, has no such ready-made foundation, and consequently struggles to define its own identity.
Rather than lurking beneath the Paris Opera House, the Phantom now runs a freakish amusement park on Coney Island. Still obsessed with Christine, he lures her to America in order to hear her sing one last time. However, when she arrives with her husband Raoul and her son Gustave, it’s apparent that much has changed in the intervening decade.
As evidenced even in this brief synopsis, Love Never Dies has placed a creative bet each way. The characters have literally moved on from the world of Phantom, but the story still strives to push them into situations that will replicate the winning formula. This might have worked if the characters were as strongly motivated as before, but instead they feel driven by the needs of a sequel.
Moments like the Phantom's ‘shock’ reveal of his presence to Christine feel like a blatant rehash of past glories for example, and without the bedrock of Leroux, it looks suspiciously like Love Never Dies is simply cannibalising its parent.
The cumulative effect is of a show bogged down in the past, and the first act in particular feels more like an epilogue than a progression.
But everything changes after the interval. The story starts nudging the characters into new territory, with the highlight being the Phantom's confrontation with Raoul. Sparks fly as the Opera Ghost and his rival duet on ‘Devil Take the Hindmost’, and it's this spitting, desperate energy that powers the show to its conclusion. Suddenly a lumbering, photocopied story becomes genuinely unpredictable, and for a show so dependent upon mass appeal, that's no mean achievement. The irony is that it's decisions like these that will probably disappoint fans of the original Phantom. They’ll expect more of the same, and along with the production's genuine deficiencies, Love Never Dies just doesn't have the same shape as its predecessor. Rather than a story of grand passion, this is about faded, desperate people, and even the early Phantom-by-numbers stuff feels like an impediment rather than a comfort.
However the point where it breaks free of the big-budget machinery to focus on a human-sized story is precisely when Love Never Dies finds a voice of its own.
Very few blockbusters would be brave enough to take their audience to such unexpected territory, and although the show as a whole is undeniably compromised, this is a sequel that deserves applause for favouring the intimate over the operatic.