Love Never Dies – from London and Sydney

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s sequel to The Phantom of the Opera was expected to open in London in 2010 and then have a Broadway transfer. It did open in London, but the reception wasn’t strong enough to earn it a Broadway transfer. However, an Australian production under a new director with a revised book was mounted last year.

The Australian production was recorded for release on DVD or Blu-ray (available May 29, 2012) but you can view it on a big screen at a movie theater near you now  - if you act quickly. My recommendation? Act quickly! The recording of that production will be broadcast directly to a number of movie theaters in the area for screening this Wednesday evening, March 7.

A ticket to Wednesday screening ($18) will cost you just about the same as a copy of the two-disc CD of the original London cast (18.99 or a “deluxe edition” $29.71.)

The version on the screen isn’t the same as the one on the CD. The London original featured Ramin Karimloo as the Phantom. He was thoroughly satisfying and even occasionally thrilling. His reprise of “‘Till I Hear You Sing” was a superb example of building a song to a stirring climax.

What you will see in the theater captures the performance of Australia’s Ben Lewis, whose intensity is impressive both visually and sonically. If anything, he’s a more virile and vital Phantom than Karimloo seemed from just the audio evidence.

On the audio disc, Christine Daaé was played by Sierra Boggess whose voice is clear and clean enough to enrapture any Phantom, but the on-screen Australian Anna O’Byrne adds a delicacy and a touch of maternal instinct.

Maternal instinct? Yes. It seems this sequel, which takes place a bit over ten years after the events shown in the original, features the son of Christine who happens to be ten years old. You do the math. Certainly both the Phantom and his old rival, Raoul do, figuring out just what was meant when the Phantom sang to Christine those classic words “Help me make the music of the night.”

In the Australian production, the son is played by Jack Lyall, whose acting is acceptable for a ten year old and whose voice is as pure and sweet as Lloyd Webber must have imagined for the role when he wrote the beautiful song “Beautiful” for the boy.

Musically, Lloyd Webber is back in the style as well as the topic of The Phantom of the Opera with a score that reaches the level of sophistication, complexity and interrelationships that made the original the longest running musical in both Broadway and London history. For this we should be grateful.

Unfortunately, he also returns to composing truly effective music that carries lyrics of less than equal quality. This time it is Glenn Slater who provides lyrics that approach – but do not reach – the heft of the melodist’s work. They fall time and time again just shy of the level of polish that should be required.

True, Slater doesn’t repeat some of the most egregious examples of sloppiness of Charles Hart’s work on the original Phantom. At least the word “opera” isn’t delivered as a two syllable word in one place and a three syllable phrase elsewhere.

Not since Sunset Boulevard in 1993 has Lloyd Webber soared as high as he does here. “‘Till I Hear You Sing,” “Once Upon Another Time,” “The Coney Island Waltz” and the title song belong in any compilation of his best, and that would have to be a very big one.

Slater, despite the above mentioned lack of polishing, reaches for big images and strong emotions, very much in the style that Hart pursued in the earlier Phantom work.

Simon Phillips, who is represented on Broadway at the moment with the Australian import Priscilla Queen of the Desert,  directed the Australian production. The recording was under the direction of Brett Sullivan. Sullivan spends most of the time in close ups and medium shots. Therefore, you don’t get a good feel for what the sets looked like on the proscenium stage, but their detail is satisfying and the view of the splendid costumes is better than anything you would get from even the best seats in the house. Both sets and costumes were the work of Gabriela Tylesova who won the Australian Helpmann Awards for best of each category.

The Australian production streamlined the book for the musical somewhat, removing the framing device of telling the story in flashback and reducing some of the complexities involving Madame Giry and her daughter Meg. It is hard to compare the two versions, however, by simply contrasting the Australian production with the London cast recording. The “standard” version of the two-CD set lacks a synopsis, so it is difficult to follow some of the convolutions in the subplots from the audio only, and there are times when it isn’t clear who is singing what lines. What is worse, the finale is very confusing because you miss the visual clues which the video finally provides.

I always try to avoid spoilers in my reviews so I’m not going to tell you here just who it is who shoots whom at the end. If you miss the screening and still want to know, email me and I’ll clue you in. 

March 6, 2012