Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom sequel Love Never Dies opened in the West End to a very split response. The critics savaged it and it was cruelly dubbed ‘Paint Never Dries’ by fans who found its premise tedious and uninspiring. There were even those who, believing that the hugely successful The Phantom of the Opera needed no sequel, condemned the show before it opened and formed the nauseating ‘Love Should Die’ group to discourage theatregoers from seeing it and actively campaigning for its closure. Lloyd Webber himself admitted there were issues with the plot, and after the show was temporarily closed down for a few weeks and reworked it received a far more positive reaction – although the closed-minded ‘LSD’ group were still not appeased. But for every person who disparaged Love Never Dies, there was another who saw it from a very different viewpoint. It attracted a horde of dedicated fans who adored every aspect of the show and returned to see it on a weekly basis with an obsessional love to rival that of its masked ‘Angel’.
I was one of those who took the show to my heart. As much as I enjoy taking in a variety of theatre, I will admit to having a soft spot for those big, epic melodrama productions like Les Miserables and Phantom. I am irrevocably drawn to shows which can move me to tears with the passion and emotion of their music, their story and characters and Love Never Dies certainly did that for me. I agree that there were holes in the musical’s book, but you know what? It may not have been perfect, but it wasn’t as far off as some people believed. There are shows still playing in the West End that have far weaker stories than Love Never Dies and only a handful which can match it in scope and vision. I thought it to be an exquisitely beautiful piece of musical theatre and its absence has left a big void in London’s West End.
It may be gone from our shores, but it is proving that it can live up to its title on the other side of the world. The show went over to Australia last year and was very warmly received – now, the production has been filmed at Melbourne’s Regent Theatre and the DVD was released on Monday. UK fans have rushed out to get it, thrilled at the chance to revisit their beloved show; if they were expecting a carbon copy of the London production however, they’ll be in for a surprise.
One of the show’s lyrics reads, “Diamonds never sparkle bright, if they aren’t set just right”. This couldn’t be more apt in discussion of the original London production, but the visionary brilliance of director Simon Phillips has set Lloyd Webber’s diamond in the rough ‘just right’ now and its sparkle is a dazzling sight indeed. Love Never Dies has been completely re-imagined and is now the show that Lloyd Webber says he always envisioned it to be. The storyline hasn’t been drastically altered, but subtle lyric changes and re-worked dialogue has tightened everything up and pulled those unravelling threads together to create a more seamless production. The hidden secrets and motives of the principal characters are made more plausible by not masking them so well now – especially in the case of Meg Giry. Cleverly placed hints and references to past events and her buried pain make Meg’s subsequent breakdown seem not only conceivable, but inevitable.
The biggest difference between the London and Australian productions though is the staging. The Regent Theatre is a far bigger stage and the sets have grown with it. As lavish and visually stunning as the London show looked, it can’t compare to the scale of Australia’s Love Never Dies. Set and costume designer Gabriela Tylesova has created a lavish world that simply has to be seen to be believed. Coney Island is brought to life in a swirl of colour and sensation, with its gaggle of freaks, bright lights and even a huge carousel which descends from the roof, while the dark world of the Phantom is realised in a combination of nightmare and beauty that is a masterpiece of staging. Christine’s costumes in particular are ravishing to behold, as she appears in a succession of sublime gowns.
And what of its cast? New talents Ben Lewis and Anna O’Byrne lead Love Never Dies as the Phantom and Christine and are magnificent in the roles. O’Byrne is breathtakingly gorgeous and has a voice like liquid gold, effortlessly reaching those soaring soprano notes and flawlessly capturing the union between Christine’s voice and the Phantom’s music. Lewis’ classical baritone voice is perfectly suited to the character and his height and strong, distinctive looks lend themselves to his foreboding stage presence. He blends passion, intensity and darkness with vulnerability, pain and longing to epitomise the Phantom, disturbing and terrifying in his malevolence and that penetrating stare one moment and breaking hearts with the depth of his despair and suffering the next. The combination of O’Byrne and Lewis, alongside the stellar performances of Simon Gleeson as Raoul, Maria Mercedes as Madame Giry and Sharon Millerchip as Meg Giry and of course, young Gustave, makes for a incredible cast, backed up by an incredible ensemble.
Having seen the London production, there were elements from it that I missed: as much as I avoid comparing actors who perform the same roles, I couldn’t help but think of Ramin Karimloo and just how astoundingly mind-blowing he would have been on the DVD. That’s not to take anything away from Lewis who is a simply phenomenal Phantom, but after witnessing Karimloo onstage in Love Never Dies, I would have liked to have seen his remarkable performance immortalised on screen. I did feel at times that it lacked the intensity of the original, which I think can just be attributed to the scope of the production. Theatre and film are two very different things and not everything will translate from one to the other; what works on the stage will not necessarily come across well on screen. The deliberation and emphasis in Lewis’ dialogue was occasionally reminiscent of a pantomime villain (minus the moustache twirling) for example, and O’Byrne’s homage to the 1930’s swoon was slightly cheesy; I was also a little underwhelmed by the choreography in Meg’s performance numbers. Overall though, it plays out beautifully on DVD. The rich swells of music sound glorious, as do the voices of the cast, and it looks simply spectacular. The emotion of the story still draws you in and I don’t mind admitting that the heart-wrenching finale brought tears to my eyes –my seven-year-old daughter sobbed her heart out seeing it at the Adelphi Theatre and the DVD had exactly the same effect as the show did back then.
Watching the Australian production of Love Never Dies has made me miss this show in the West End immensely. When you have a show that is as successful as The Phantom of the Opera, it’s going to be a hard act to follow and it was the relentless comparison between the two that caused one of the biggest problems for Love Never Dies. Some fans are so loyal to the original show and characters that they feel as though they own it/them, so transporting it all ten years into the future and exploring how things have changed in that time did not sit well with them. Life is always moving on and people do change, so it would have been pointless to create a sequel that was stuck in a proverbial time-bubble. I happen to think that the progression of events and characters in Love Never Dies fits in wonderfully with Phantom, but for those fans who disagree, I recommend you stop comparing and try looking at it as a stand-alone piece of theatre. When you judge it on its own laurels and accept it for what it is, the splendour of Love Never Dies speaks for itself. Out of all the shows which closed in the West End last year, this is the one I think was the biggest travesty. I have a feeling it will be back again one day soon however, so until then, sit at home with your DVD of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical and let the spectacle astound you all over again.
By Julie Robinson (@missjulie25)
Wednesday 14th March 2012