31 May 2011

Review: Love Never Dies

Love Never Dies
The Really Useful Company Asia Pacific
28 May 2011
Regent Theatre

On opening night, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber took a bow and shared the overflowing audience love with the Australian cast of Love Never Dies.  He told us he was never happy with the London version and said that this could be the best production he's seen of one of his shows.

After the West End version's mixed reviews (read bollocking) and the "postponement" of the Broadway version, all musical theatre eyes turned to Melbourne to see if the sequel to The Phantom of the Opera is really that scary. Regardless of any opinion,  Sir Andrew says it's what he imagined and Graeme Murphy (choreography) should have shown the knight how to do a convincing happy dance.

And so Sir A should be thrilled. Simon Phillips strong direction leads a perfect cast, from the faultless and gorgeous ensemble to Ben Lewis as the Phantom, who I'd love to see play the original. Maria Mercedes (my favourite Frank'N'Furter) brings a creepy darkness to Madame Giry; Sharon Millerchip (who was Meg Giry in the original Australian production of Phantom) lets Meg struggle with bitterness and hope; Simon Gleeson shows the sadness and regret in Raoul; and Anna O'Byrne (who was so wonderful as Polly in Malthouse's Threepenny Opera) makes us believe Christine's regrets.

However, the star of the show is designer Gabriela Tylesova. Her design creates a nostalgic Coney Island with a part-irresistible, part-nightmarish beauty. This spectacular world of pearled colours, sepias and greys is like a hand-coloured seaside postcard, but it's an uncomfortable world where the glorious freaks outnumber the happy visitors. No detail has been spared on the exquisite costumes of hand-sewn lace,  beads and brocade, while the joy and humour of her seaside and dancing-girl costumes fills the stage. And the only thing more gorgeous than the painted tights are the shoes. The sight lines up front mean that a bit too much backstage "mystery" is revealed (which this can and must be fixed), but seeing the shoes and the boots (oh my god, those boots) is worth it. I couldn't decide which pair I loved the most.

Ok, so this production is glorious, so why are there so many euthanasia jokes about Love Never Dies?

Perhaps because a story with no heart doesn't need a Do Not Resusitate order.

It's ten years since the Phantom escaped his lynching in the catacombs of the Paris Opera House and lovers Christine and Raoul were free to get it on in peace. Christine's become famous, they have a ten year old son (who likes music) and they're in debt (not sure why). Meanwhile Madame and Meg Giry followed the Phantom to Coney Island where Meg is still trying to get his attention (and this time she's getting her gear off ). Oh, and Christine really did find the courage to show him he "is not alone" and has been pining for her deformed father-angel.

For those unfamiliar with the Phantom story, I'm not sure what narrative question brings new audiences into this piece, and those who know it will spend time re-assessing their memories of the characters and the story. Dramatically, most of act one is given away in the opening number (where Lewis is amazing), the exposition outweighs the story progression and the highlights of the rest are Meg's stand alone numbers with the ensemble and any time the whole cast is on the stage and the story is having a breather.

I think The Phantom of the Opera is a perfect piece of theatre; musically, emotionally and dramatically. I'm an unashamed fan of Sir Andrew. Cats will always be awesome, I don't know why Aspects of Love was never huge and I have a cassette of Starlight Express and enjoyed every lycra-clad, roller-skating moment of the Melbourne production. There, I've said it.

If someone had played me the music of Love Never Dies, I would have guessed it was a parody of Lloyd Webber. Musically, it's forgettable and dreary and builds to a climax song that relies on the voice of O'Byrne and the outrageously glorious design (even if we all know that the coloured peacocks are boys).

The music is sadly matched by the lyrics that lack any hint of subtext and ("A man as hideous as this is capable of anything") and fail to show anything that isn't bleeding obvious.

But all could be forgiven with a great story. Ben Elton wrote the book. Ben Elton: the alternative-comic hero of the 80s and 90s; the wittiest bloke on the planet; the man who spits out more best sellers than most people read; a dude who understands story. Yes, I am also a fan of Ben Elton and have wiped the recent Channel 9 experience from my memory. I don't know how he wrote this story. There's no tension, no mystery, no compelling dilemmas (dilemma is equal and compelling choices, not a coin toss between which is the least dull), no humour (!) and has a lazy and unfulfilling ending worthy of a day time soap.  However, the cast bring everything they have to make it as emotionally real as possible and I saw a couple of tears shed.

This production is an incredible opportunity to fix Love Never Dies and remind all the disbelievers of just how much Sir Andrew changed and influenced musical theatre.  I tired to "look with my heart and not with my eyes", but the only thing my heart skipped a beat over were the shoes.

This review originally appeared on AussieThearte.com

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