Review of the filmed Australian production of Love Never Dies as presented nationwide on March 7th. Starring Ben Lewis and Anna O"Byrne. Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Lyrics by Glenn Slater and Charles Hart. Book by Glenn Slater, Ben Elton and Frederick Forsythe. Choreography by Graeme Murphy AM. Direction by Simon Phillips. 2 hours, 10 minutes. Alcohol, mild violence and horror film-style thrills.
If you don't want to know the plot or ending, I'd suggest that you skip this review.
I'll be completely up front. I am NOT a fan of The Phantom of the Opera. But I actually had somewhat higher hopes for Love Never Dies owing mostly to the slick filmed bits I've seen in the commercials. At the very least, I went to support this kind of event which brings theatre to those of us who live outside New York, London or Melbourne. As it turns out, that's pretty much all I did. The most interesting part of the evening was listening to the very vocal audience during the Broadway coming attractions. (HERE) I couldn't help leaving thinking I am glad to have spent only $20 on it rather than $150 when it inevitably steam rolls into New York. Still, that doesn't mean that the filmed version isn't without its merits.
- The spectacular opening. I thought I was going to LOVE this when it started. It opens with a Prologue, "Til I Hear You Sing," a beautiful aria of a number that has the Phantom pining for his muse, Christine Daae. Love certainly hasn't died for the Phantom in the 10 years since they last parted. This number soars in the way I always wanted "Music of the Night" to. And that number segues into the absolutely gorgeous "Coney Island Waltz" (it owes more than a tip of its hat to "The Carousel Waltz") which introduces us to the locale and Mister Y's Phantasm, a spectacular freak show. It is this device that allows the Phantom to roam freely (pretty much) about the place, though he mostly keeps to himself. Webber's music here approaches the grandeur and scale of Sunset Boulevard, and the lyrics by Glenn Slater and Charles Hart show surprising depth of emotion. Throughout, the entire score benefits from the assembled full orchestra and the magical orchestrations by David Cullen.
- The spectacular scenery. Designed by Gabriela Tylesova, the scenery is even more stunning than Phantom. With some rather cheeky references to the original - mirrors, broken and two way, appear somewhat frequently, the organ room and lair (for lack of a better term) of the Phantom are adorned with curled brass and flame shaped light bulbs that do more than call to mind the infamous chandelier, she reminds us of the original. But the specific location of Coney Island is jaw-dropping. A giant labyrinth of ominous roller coaster tracks frames the stage, and colorful tents come and go at eye-popping speeds to reveal glass wonders, a colorful and a bit scary carousel, and a full stage of a burlesque show. Even the pictures I've included here don't do it justice.
- The spectacular costumes. Also designed by Ms. Tylesova, the costumes are equally dazzling. This production is said to have 300 of them. It is to her credit that the "street clothes" are as wondrous as the "theatrical costumes." They transport us to a time, that at only 100 years ago, seems so far removed from us - a time when you dressed to travel and to attend the theatre. And the colorful, exotic, erotic and circus clown scary costumes of the Phantasm dazzle and disturb in all the ways you should be when watching a Gothic horror story. Something tells me that not a few people have left the show only to have nightmares that evening.
- The spectacular lighting. Designed by Nick Schlieper, the lighting enhances, amplifies and colors the magical world of Love Never Dies. The use of darkness does much the same. Rarely has lighting been so neatly intertwined with a piece's story and themes.
- The spectacular two leads. Both Ben Lewis (The Phantom) and Anna O'Byrne (Christine) have the requisite vocal skills. In fact, Ms. O'Byrne may be the first Christine I haven't found to be shrill and impossible to believe. And Mr. Lewis is both menacing and extremely sexy. That sensuality and sense of danger make the Phantom at last have the combination that makes the fear he instills as believable as having women swoon at his feet. Their chemistry is smoking hot and fairly leaps off the screen.
5 REASONS WHY LOVE NEVER DIES PROBABLY SHOULD
- The horrid score. Despite the spectacular opening minutes and consistently lush orchestrations, one song blends into the next with a bland monotone that lulls one into a battle to keep one's eyes open. My companion for the film dozed a couple of times, and I'm not sure I didn't miss a minute or two. There is exactly one up tempo number, something about bathing beauties meant to show us that Meg can be a star, after all. It is about as rousing as a third cotton candy in one night. Lord Webber calls it his best, most personal score. That means he really is the bore he comes across like.
- The unbelievable story. Separately, the idea that the Phantom has escaped and joined a society of misfits makes sense, and that Christine has become a world-famous opera diva is not beyond possibility. But together, it comes across as a trite convenient plot machination. And you can almost believe that Meg and Madame Giry followed and have made the Phantom's business is a success. But Meg is now vying for the Phantom's attentions - mentorship and otherwise? Really? 10 years has turned this third-stringer into a Prima Ballerina? Hmmm. But the best, um, worst thing is that Raoul has become a jealous, angry drunk! There is a scene with Raoul at a bar, trading what appears to be a button and some pocket lint for one last drink. And when the "day shift bartender" arrives in the person of the Phantom, the entire movie theatre laughed long and loud.
- The complete lack of (intended) humor. If we were meant to laugh at the freaks then shame on the authors. Because there is nothing remotely funny in this show. Who would have thought we'd actually miss Carlotta? Of course, I did enjoy my giggles at the final moments of the show (SPOILER ALERT) what with a pistol-wielding Meg dangling Christine's 10 year old love child over the edge of the coaster tracks. Maybe if the Comet were hurtling toward them...
- The ridiculous ending. A murderess named Meg is running amok on Coney Island. An opera diva lies dead in the arms of her lover while her drunken husband tearfully tries to get the boy that isn't his son to come to him. The boy does, but then returns to the Phantom to touch his mask in wonder. And this is the ONLY (literally) time there is not even underscoring. Well, at least it is consistent. Both the original and the sequel end with a quiet moment that makes you go, "huh?"
- Some seriously sketchy casting. As great as Lewis and O"Byrne are, the rest of the principals are more dinner theatre than West End or Broadway. With a list of amazing credits, it is shocking at how one-note Maria Mercedes is as Madame Giry. Boring and bland don't begin to tell the tale of this miscast. The same and be said for the Raoul of Simon Gleeson. No wonder Christine has kept the torch burning for the Phantom for 10 years. He isn't even an interesting drunk. But one has to wonder what they were thinking when casting Sharon Millerchip as Meg. It must have been one rough decade for the littlest ballerina. She looks about a decade too old for the role (ah, the perils of high def!), and laughably bad as a "performer" and shockingly bad as a crazed murderer. And don't get me started on the annoying boy soprano that plays the child...
At the beginning of the showing, there is a documentary featuring Lloyd Webber talking about how great it is to have the technology to record theatre in this way and bring it to the masses. He is right. It is potentially a great thing. And Love Never Dies is beautifully filmed. But it could lead to a false impression. Film and careful editing tells you wear to look and cuts out the less interesting things. And it also robs you of the experience of it happening right before your eyes and of the excitement of seeing something so huge unfolds before you.
I hope more productions are filmed - a cross between the treatment Memphis got and this would be the closest to seeing a show from a center orchestra seat. But in this case, as great as the film is, the show isn't worthy of such treatment. Heck, it makes me appreciate The Phantom of the Opera. I NEVER thought I'd say that.
(Photos by Jeff Busby)
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