This is my first attempt at reviewing a stage play, so bear with me folks. I saw the show last Thursday night at Adelphi Theater. Walking from the main square from Covent Garden, we asked a couple of people along the way how to find the theater, and one of them remarked, ‘Oh is that the one showing Tomorrow Never Dies?’ Ha! Perhaps Andrew Lloyd Webber and James Bond’s producers flip a coin on the title?
Anyway, having loved the original Phantom of the Opera and its beautiful, haunting music, I was really curious to see how the sequel pans out. No, I’m not one of those ‘phans’ who’ve seen the original hundreds of times and collect all kinds of memorabilia, who apparently are none too keen on the sequel idea even before they even saw it. Many of them are even posted on ALW’s own company site Really Useful Group. It’s interesting that POTO is still playing just a few blocks away at Her Majesty’s Theater, and the stats on what’s dubbed as the most successful single piece of entertainment of all time is staggering. Now, I’ve only seen the stage show twice when it toured in my hometown, but I’ve enjoyed the songs since I was in high school and still love it to this day. But when I caught a glimpse of Ramin Karimloo‘s singing voice as the Phantom, I found myself swept away by the song ‘Til I hear you sing, so it was a real dream come true to see it months before it opens on Broadway!
Love Never Dies continues the story of The Phantom of the Opera, who has moved from his lair in the Paris Opera House to haunt the fairgrounds of Coney Island. It’s set 10 years after Phantom’s mysterious disappearance, and he’s now a successful impresario with his own freak show appropriately called Phantasma. Even after all this time, he still pines for (read: obsessed) with the French soprano singer Christine Daaé, who no longer performs. She now has a 10-year-old boy Gustave and her husband Vicomte de Chagny/Raoul has squandered much of their fortune on drinking and gambling. The Phantom invites her to sing an aria he’s written especially for her, and as soon as she arrives in the then-popular beach resort, the roller-coaster romance continues.
Before I proceed, let me just say that I had no doubt in my mind before I even saw it that this show wasn’t going to top the original, especially in terms of the music and the story. But with that said, I found the show to be enjoyable and delightful, even if I wasn’t as enchanted as I did the first time I saw the original show.
High marks should go to the visually-stunning and inventive production design of Coney Island, which is a feast for the eyes. Mixing digital projection technology and art nouveau pieces, it was electrifying-ly bizarre. Things and creatures in the Phantom’s new home are far more freaky than those in his former underground lair, i.e. medusa-like singing chandelier; half-skeleton, half-woman legs in fishnet stocking pushing what looks to be a tea cart, which are fittingly set to the eccentric, loud rock-opera tune “The Beauty Underneath.”
Then there’s the spectacular voices from the main cast. The Iranian-born, Canadian-bred Karimloo has impressive set of lungs, his rendition of the main tune ‘Til I hear you sing gave me goose-bumps and moved me to tears. We’re sitting on row F which is quite close to the stage and I thought his performance was good, sure he didn’t quite have the imposing stature as the titular hero, but he nailed the emotional scenes nicely. He had a sort of peculiar hand gesture as he belted out a tune, but it wasn’t overly distracting.
Sierra Boggess was equally enchanting as Christine, and seems to be age-appropriate as the heroine who’s supposedly be in her mid twenties by now. In contrast, the Phantom seemed to have grown even younger ten years on (Gerry Butler in the 2004 movie version was already a younger version of Michael Crawford, and Karimloo looks at least five years Butler’s junior!). In any case, Boggess’ vocal prowess was downright amazing, the aria Love Never Dies already started quite high but it soared to what sounded like a five-octave range towards the end, I was breathless just listening to her! Joseph Millson gave equally strong performance as the handsome but crestfallen Raoul, as did Summer Strallen with her impressive dancing sequences as Meg Giry, who ended up being the ‘villain’ of the show.
Of course, there’s the music itself. Of course POTO is a formidable act to follow musically as the tunes such as Music of the Night, All I Ask of You and The Point of No Return are so unabashedly romantic, haunting-ly beautiful, and has that inherent timeless quality. Now that I’ve gone back to listen to POTO music again, I realize those will remain a cut above the rest of all Webber’s work, including LND. At the same time, I really enjoyed the new music, particularly ‘Til I Hear You Sing, which was far more moving when heard live on stage. It’s packed with a strong emotional punch and more than a hint of romantic obsession and frustration. Boggess’ rendition of the aria Love Never Dies gives me goose-bumps the way the original theatrical Christine Sarah Brightman does with most of her songs, which is always a good thing in my book. It was hard to keep my eyes dry during the two scenes. The rockin’ The Beauty Underneath may seem out-of-place in a romantic tale, but it fits just fine in the Coney Island freak-show theme, though it’s probably not a tune I’d rewind and listen over and over again like the ballads.
Which brings me to …
IMO, the major problem with the sequel is the implausible plot. A Guardian reviewer said it best, “Romantic obsession may be common to both shows, but where one may feel sympathy for a doomed outsider, it is hard to feel much for an omnipotent impresario.” That’s precisely how I felt. For me, the reason I had so much sympathy for the tragically-flawed character was because he was an outcast, rejected by the world, even those he loves so dearly. But now, he’s got a slew of staff ready at his beck & call, and even his arch nemesis, the formerly influential Vicomte is now reduced to a drunken wreck.
Love triangle is apparently not complex enough for ALW, as now we’ve also got Gustave, who’s more-than-implied to be the fruit of Phantom/Christine sexual tryst (wha–?). Apparently, upon his disappearance, Christine was able to locate the disfigured masked-one and the song Beneath A Moonless Sky intimates their err, intimate rendezvous “… and I held you, and I touched you and embrace you… and I felt you, and with every breath and every sigh …” (whew, is it hot in here?)
Ok, fine I’ll buy that, I confess that despite his deformity, the Phantom could be quite seductive. But get this, in this story, he’s actually the one who left Christine in the middle of the night, which left her no choice but to choose Raoul. Yeah right, I find that extremely hard to believe. I mean I’ve always thought in POTO that Christine wasn’t so much in love with the Phantom as much as she was indebted for his teaching and felt sorry for him. There was no way the relentlessly obsessive Phantom would’ve let her go after he finally won her over.
The mystique and thrilling mystery of the main character is also lost somehow, which IMO is the biggest issue I had with the show. The biggest draw for me in watching and listening to the Phantom is its untouchable, otherworldly quality, he is after all the Opera ghost… dark, tormented, terrifying… yet we’re drawn to his wretchedness and genius musical creation. Alas, there’s not much of that here. Perhaps the fact that we see him so often on stage (with and without his mask) have something to do with it. Nothing in Karimloo’s portrayal depict him as a threatening character who can suddenly lose his temper and go for the kill, and instead of his trademark punjab lasso, he’s now a gun-totting curmudgeon.
And lastly, I’m not a fan of the ending. I’m not going to spoil it for you, but let’s just say that though love might never die, but a major character does, and it’s the most drawn-out death scene ever. One that defies logic of course – I never knew someone suffering a short-range gun-shot wound is still able to not only talk effortlessly but sing as well! And all that convoluted gothic love story is reduced to a mere father-son hug. Heh!
In conclusion, it’s not as bad as the ‘paint never dries‘ notion this blog said, but phantastic? Not exactly. Still, the experience of going to Adelphi to see Karimloo and Boggess sang their hearts out was worth every pence!
By the way, when this sequel was first announced, there were rumors that Gerry Butler might reprise his role as the Phantom in the the movie version of LND. In my eyes, the Scot will always be the best and most captivating Phantom – as legions of his fans would agree – so to see him swing his cape and smolders will always be a welcome sight. Besides, as of now Butler has never done a follow-up to any of the role he’s played, so why not go back to the one he’s obviously born to play.
But now come to think of it, it’s probably best for him to move on to other things. The sequel story is just too weird and preposterous for a film adaptation. Plus, even though he’s supposedly the same character, in LND, the Phantom’s essence has been altered so much from the original that the mystique is lost. Thus, I’d rather have my memory of him as the perfect opera ghost I wouldn’t mind having as a stalker 🙂 Why mess with perfection, y’know?