Date of Show:
Saturday, 28th May 2011 (All day)
Operatic in scope, intimate in detail, the Australian production of Love Never Dies is an artistic triumph, set to be envy of the world stage.
Movies do it all the time so why not musical theatre? Musical sequels do not have a great track record of success (Bring Back Birdie anyone?) but with the most successful musical of all time it was worth a shot and, thankfully, that shot has hit the target with an intriguing story set to gorgeous music. Rather than rehashing the original, the sequel to The Phantom of the Opera advances the characters and their tangled relationships, bringing the saga to a tragic close.
Set ten years after the Phantom engineered the discovery of young soprano Christine Daae, Love Never Dies sees him alone and distraught without his muse. Helped out of Paris by the forbidding Madam Giry and her starry-eyed daughter Meg, the Phantom has created a new home on Coney Island, this time overseeing the action from high above rather than underground. An elusive and mysterious character in the first installment, the Phantom is painted as much more human here, opening the show with his ‘I wish’ song, the magnificent “ ‘Til I Hear You Sing”.
Having drunk and gambled away his fortune, Raoul brings his wife Christine, now herself a prima donna, and their son Gustave across the Atlantic for a Manhattan engagement. Concentrating on these five established characters, plus Gustave, gives the show a tight focus and is integral to its success as a sequel. The reunion scene “Dear Old Friends” is a delight and act two’s quintet “Devil Take the Hindmost reprise” is spellbinding.
The key reunion of course is between the Phantom and Christine. Entering her hotel room through a mirror, naturally, they sing a pair of ravishing duets, “Beneath a Moonless Sky” and “Once Upon Another Time”, revealing the intimacy that transpired between the two of them shortly after the Phantom vanished from the Paris Opera House. Still with a vicious side, The Phantom threatens Gustave so Christine will sing for him but relents as he comes to realise the truth about the boy. Secure that Christine will sing, he still cannot help but taunt Raoul, setting up the final conflict for Christine – sing for the Phantom or leave with Raoul.
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score is sumptuous, particularly as played by a 21-piece orchestra under the highly experienced baton of Guy Simpson. The gift to the performers is the opportunity to sing beautifully. Christine’s big aria “Love Never Dies” in particular is a virtuosic masterpiece. Sound design is reliably pristine.
Snippets of motifs from Phantom are cleverly sprinkled throughout, creating a subtle connection between the two pieces. Christine reacts with horror when Gustave’s new music box plays “Angel of Music”. Alone and afraid in her dressing room, as she was before Don Juan Triumphant, Christine sings “Twisted Every Way”. The Phantom threatens Christine to the tune of “Stranger than you Dreamt It”.
One of the towering achievements of this new production is the eye-popping, jaw-dropping Set and Costume Design of Gabriela Tylesova. On a scale rarely seen, the magic of Coney Island comes to life in all its glittering and mystical splendour. Rollercoaster tracks tower overhead, a backdrop of fairy lights depict the fun of the fair and quaint backdrops frame Meg’s music hall style numbers. The hall of mirrors and freaks sequence is a thrilling masterpiece. The hotel room is an art nouveau dream, complete with ornate metalwork and romantic sculpted lamps. The Phantom’s influence is everywhere, with macabre touches in all the artwork, such as the gruesome carousel beasts.
Costumes are equally stunning, a cavalcade of lavish designs that must be seen to be believed. Christine, in particular, looks divine every time she steps on stage. The carnival performers and circus freaks are created with such detail that it is difficult to absorb it all with just one viewing. The performance costumes of Meg and her dancers are a witty delight, the macabre touch seen again in their feathered outfits in which the headpieces feature a bird’s skull.
The overall success of proceedings of course is ultimately due to Director Simon Phillips. Having proved with Priscilla
that he is equally adept with both spectacular and intimate scenes, Phillips has outdone himself here, creating a production that will be the envy of the West End and Broadway. Thrilling crowd scenes contrast with the tense interplay of the six principals. The crowning achievement, after the riot of colour and excitement, is the power of the final three minutes, which play out with no words keeping the audience breathless and spellbound.
Bringing Phillips’ vision to life are a set of perfectly cast, supremely talented actors led by newcomers, set to become overnight sensations, Ben Lewis as The Phantom and Anna O’Byrne as Christine.
Lewis has a rich, powerful baritone voice, full of colour and warmth. His rendition of the opening number “ ‘Till I Hear You Sing” is spine tingling, and sets the tone for the whole evening. His handsome good looks unfortunately hidden by the mask, Lewis nonetheless exudes charisma and enjoys palpable chemistry with O’Byrne. His characterisation skillfully blends the human emotions of the Phantom with his darker, vicious side, and the disappointments and devastation experienced by the Phantom are keenly felt.
O’Byrne is a sensational discovery and there is no doubt that she will grace the stage in leading roles for decades to come. With the beauty of a porcelain doll, she captures the fragility and passion of Christine, creating a sympathetic and captivating heroine. Blessed with a soaring soprano voice of liquid gold, O’Byrne sounds sublime in song after song, culminating in the priceless “Love Never Dies”.
Consummate actor Simon Gleeson, in the somewhat thankless role of Raoul, wrings every nuance out of the material, demonstrating his highly expressive singing voice in “Why Does She Love Me?”. Likewise, Sharon Millerchip elevates the material with her well-shaded expression and is a dainty delight throughout. Returning to the role she created in the Australian premiere of Phantom
, Meg is now ten years older and yet, twenty years on, the waif like Millerchip somehow does not look a day older.
Maria Mercedes brings vocal firepower to the slightly one-note role of Madame Giry, portraying the forbidding and driven woman with understated skill. Kurtis Papadinis played Gustave on opening night, singing with a breathy sweetness and acting with suitably wide-eyed wonder. This beautifully written role will be a blessing for each of the five young boys in the cast.
Ringmasters Fleck (Emma J Hawkins), Squelch (Paul Tabone) and Gangle (Dean Vince) are an eerie and captivating trio, adding significantly to the authenticity of the carnival setting. The shapes and contortions they create as a team are very effective.
“Diamonds never sparkle bright
If they aren’t set just right”
The Phantom is referring to Christine but going by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s candid description in his speech at the opening night curtain, the same could be said about the London production of this show. Love Never Dies is certainly ‘set just right’ now and a musical premiere has never sparkled as bright. This is first class entertainment that surpasses the accomplishments of London and New York. Miss it only if you dare incur the Phantom’s wrath.
Love Never Dies plays the Regent Theatre, Melbourne.
Photos: Jeff Busby