March 10, 2010
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When we last met the obsessed stalker with the porcelain cheek he was disappearing through the false bottom of a rococo throne, having punted his adored Christine through the watery catacombs of the Paris Opera and then left her to wed her own best beloved, Raoul. Indeed, he is still doing this at Her Majesty’s Theatre, where Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera has been running since 1986. But, oh, how time and a dismally implausible plot have altered him and his life.
In Love Never Dies it’s ten years later and Ramin Karimloo’s Phantom has relocated to Coney Island, where he’s created a fairground called Phantasma. But not only is he still wailing anguished ditties to Christine — “I’ll always feel no more than halfway real till I hear you sing once more”— he has also lured the now-successful diva to America with her husband and son in tow. And very conveniently for what’s about to ensue, the handsome and heroic Raoul has become a grumpy drunk, gambler and wastrel and little Gustave turns out to be the boy we never dreamt the Phantom had somehow (in that punt or upside down on a chandelier?) managed to father.
The blogosphere has been teeming with views of Lloyd Webber’s long-awaited Phantom II. For some, Love Never Dies is “Paint Never Dries”, and for others the composer is at his musical best. I tend to agree with both factions. The title song has pretty clunky lyrics, insisting as it variously does that love is all, endures, never fails, remains, drives you to despair “yet forces you to feel more joy than you can bear”; but it undeniably soars. And even though Sierra Boggess’s sweet but never sickly Christine gets a bit piercing when her high-note flutterings hit the vocal stratosphere, it also pleases the ear, as do several other numbers — though usually with a major-key lilt, never with the danger and dissonance that the Phantom tale would seem to demand.
But then this Phantom is not the phantom we knew. The “poisoned gargoyle who burns in hell” has clearly taken an anger management course in New York. True, he fills his eyrie with oddities, like the skeleton who pushes a cocktail trolley, but he’s very much the considerate gentleman, eager impresario and, soon, doting father. Would he whimsically hang the backstage crew or send a chandelier crashing into a crowd? Not any more. Even his blemish, which only ever looked as if an aspiring seamstress had done a little sewing practice on his face, seems tidier. Beside, say, the Elephant Man, Karimloo’s urbane, melodic, not-so-sinister Phantom might be Cary Grant. Maybe the tattooed giant in his retinue is a plastic surgeon or a pre-Freudian shrink.
So where’s the tension in Ben Elton and Lloyd Webber’s book? That’s not helped by a narrative that might have been part-written by Ibsen’s ghost, there’s so much earnest poring over the past. But mainly it comes from Christine’s one-time friend Meg (Summer Strallen) who has also moved to Coney Island and aims to be the belle of all this balls.
I will not reveal the evil to which jealousy drives her, just say that the ending is sentimental in the way that pleases Broadway, where the show is headed. Father-son rapprochements have a special appeal for Americans perhaps even when Dad sports a half-mask instead of a baseball cap.
Visually, there’s nothing to match the marvels that Maria Bjornson created with murk, candles and vast curtains in the original Phantom, but Bob Crowley successfully evokes much of Phantasma, helped by projections of spooky horses on carousels. Yet that’s all rather cursory, as is the choreography, which doesn’t amount to a lot more than the inevitable bathing beauties bouncing about on the beach. Where’s the menace, the horror, the psychological darkness? For that I recommend a trip to Her Majesty’s, not the Adelphi.