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A Gorgeous, Sumptuous, Glorious Production that Deserves a Second Chance
on May 16, 2014
"Love Never Dies", with music by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber with Lyrics by Glenn Slater/Additional Lyrics by Charles Hart is beautiful. The original production which opened in London a few years back met with a cold response. Although I never saw it, I did end up eventually falling in love with the music and listen to the London Cast Recording often. Shortly after the show's premier, it was re-tweaked - certain plot elements removed, scenes shuffled around and although the principal songs were left intact, the changes made did impact the overall production. This new production was launched in Australia to some critical acclaim and this is the show Webber decided to immortalize here.
The plot is set 10 years after the events of the original story and centres around the 3 main characters:
The Phantom (Ben Lewis), now living in New York's Coney Island and owner of "Phantasma", a Coney Island amusement park.
Chrisine Daae (Anna O'Byrne), a famous French soprano. She is summoned by composer Oscar Hammerstein to sing for him in a New York opera house.
Raoul - Vicomte de Chagny, now married to Christine. They have a 10 year old son Gustave. Raoul is now an insecure, bitter alcoholic who is constantly clashing with his young wife.
Also returning from the original story are Meg Giry and Madame Giry. Meg who is no longer a ballerina, she performs in the Phantom's vaudeville show and has dreams of stardom while Madame Giry is a bit more questionable. She remains loyal to the Phantom but questions his motivations and is angered that he shows little interest in Meg.
When Christine is summoned to sing in New York by the famous composer Oscar Hammerstein, the Phantom, upon knowing Christine is in town, intercepts and has members of his troupe pick her up at the pier along with Raoul and Gustave. The Phantom, who for years has longed to be reunited with Christine, wants her to sing at his "Phantasma" and has written a song specifically for her. The story is laced with love, bitter love, passion, obsession and betrayal and at the centre of this is the always vulnerable Christine who again has to chose between the 2 polarizing men in her life.
Simply put. I love this show. This newer version of this relatively new show moves much better than the original staging which did have a lot of unnecessary scenes. The most obvious revision was with the Phantom's song "Till I Hear You Sing" which was moved from the middle of act 1 to the opening number. Although "Love Never Dies" is very different than the original "Phantom", Webber's music is varied and still majestic with its sweeping melodies and glorious orchestrations. The original was darker. Its location and time, the Paris Opera house in the late 19th century, demanded a more classical tone. Webber succeeded and created some hauntingly beautiful songs and mock operas with some dark, atmospheric music. Although "Love Never Dies" is a follow up, it is a totally different animal. There are lesser moments of operatic grandeur and since it takes place in the confinement of a Coney Island amusement park, there are a whole array of quirky, colorful images and characters. The music fits this scene. It is sumptuous with the Phantom and Christine, as expected, having the best tunes of the bunch but unlike the original musical where Raoul didn't really have a solo number, he is given a great tune here ("Why Does She Love Me"). The songs here are not as instantly catchy so it may take a few extra listens for the viewer/listener to appreciate the full beauty of some of these melodies but once embedded in your head, you may find yourself humming several of these tunes. Some of the score is very reminiscent of "Sunset Boulevard", "Jesus Christ Superstar", even "Cat's" and despite some less than memorable numbers, the positives in the score far outweigh the negatives.
Many have complained about the drastic changes to the characters. Unlike some reviewers, I find these changes refreshing. As much as I love "Phantom of the Opera", with the exception of the Phantom and that Grande Diva "La Carlotta", the characters are a bit bland. Raoul and Meg for instance, were a bit boring. Meg especially is under-utilized and severely under-developed. Although Christine herself was interesting in the sense that she sang the best tunes in the show (she is in almost every scene), she spends most of her time in a trance so there is not much range of emotion and she was far too naïve to excite any real sympathy (I think this is where the movie worked, because Rossum's youth made this naiveté believable). That was then, this is now as Raoul, Meg and Madame Giry have been turned to more complex characters, loud, selfish, maybe not as likeable but so be it. They are the complete opposite to how they were portrayed in the original musical. Raoul's drastic transformation is believable to me because, well, we didn't really get to know him in the original piece. He was simply a stiff, rich pretty boy who was in love with Christine and who was more than willing to place her, the love of his life, in danger to try to capture the Phantom during the staging of his "Don Juan Triumphant". Also a lot can happen in 10 years. The guy is made more human and this is not far-fetched. The 2 main characters remain the same overall. The Phantom remains as obsessive, as dangerous, as loving as ever; although more human, we do not see many magic tricks here. Christine, although more mature, still retains the charming characteristics of a decade earlier.
The leads are great. Ben Lewis (The Phantom) and Anna O'Byrne (Christine) are both fantastic with solid vocals and great stage presence, delivering just the right amount of emotion. I am very picky with stage Christine's. After watching Rebecca Caine's (Canadian Cast) sublime performance in Toronto 2 decades ago, I have not been able to find a Christine that commanded my attention the way Caine did (and I've seen the show 18 times). O'Byrne is almost as spellbinding. She is beautiful and the score really shows off her wonderful soprano. While the original musical was the "Phantom's" show, this is clearly Christine's show. Simon Gleeson is also noteworthy for portraying the sometimes really unlikeable but far more interesting-this-time around Raoul, Vicomte de Chagney. While Raoul was a cookie cutter pretty boy with no real personality the first time around, he is an embittered, angry-at-the-world failure here.
The costumes and sets are wonderful. Despite not having any crashing chandeliers or subterranean lakes, the musical is a spectacle. The Phantom's lair this time around is more modernized. Gone are the thousand, melting, flickering candles. It is now an overwhelming, crazy maze of steel, smoke and mirrors.
Some of the highlights include:
"Till I Hear You Sing" - An emotional ballad sung by the Phantom. Beautiful and melodic. Ben Lewis' rich tones are splendid. A great opening scene.
"The Coney Island Waltz" - Originally this was an instrumental piece. This revised version is a full blown ensemble piece with added lyrics. It is visually a spectacular number.
"Look With Your Heart" - A lovely ditty sung by Christine and her son Gustave. A bit sugary but Webber's melody is so sweet and O'Byrne's vocals soar.
"Beneath A Moonless Sky" and "Once Upon Another Time" - This entire scene between the Phantom and Christine during their first reunion is a powerful one. "Beneath a Moonless Sky" is one of my favorite songs from the musical and noticed changes were made to the lyrics.
"The Beauty Underneath" - Although this song sticks out like a sore thumb since the screeching guitars and drums differs from the romantic strings of previous songs, it works. The melody is infectious and the mix of the 2 voices, the Phantom and the young Gustave, is a good combination.
"Why Does She Love Me" - Showcases Raoul in all of his tormented glory.
"Love Never Dies"- I love this song. Christine's aria written specifically for her by the Phantom is beautifully sung by O'Byrne and here, she is a site to behold. If ever there was a number where the costume and set take centre stage, it is this one. However Webber and O'Byrne's talents ensure that we are not mesmerized just by the scenery, but the music, the voice, the performance all contribute to making this a fantastic scene.
The DVD/Blu-ray picture quality is sharp and the sound quality is fantastic. Watch this on a big screen with the volume turned up for maximum effect. A "Making of" documentary with cast interview is also included. Overall, a beautiful transfer.
"Love Never Dies" works for me as a sequel and as a standalone piece despite the drastic changes. Those enamored with the syrupy romance of the original may find plenty to dislike here as this tale deviates considerably from its predecessor and as previously mentioned, the stark changes in character personalities may be hard for many to swallow. I do find this to be Webber's best musical since "Sunset Boulevard". Taking into account the setting, the music successfully captures the era and the love songs in typical Webber fashion are gorgeous. The score may sound repetitious at times and there are also brief moments in the score where melodies from Webber's original piece, "Little Lotte", "Twisted Every Way", are mixed in with the new, but there is no denying the beauty that permeates the score. When the Phantom burst into his songs and Christine beautifully sings her aria showcasing her delicate soprano, it all comes together to create a certain magic. The Phantoms return may not please all but if you are accepting of it, you may find yourself surrendering to the music all over again.