REVIEW: Melbourne Premiere of LOVE NEVER DIES

Are we entering an era of music theatre sequels?

By Kim Edwards

Back when synthesisers were cool, pyrotechnics and special effects were reserved for rock concerts, and theatre was elite and intimate, a new wave of musicals revitalised and reinvented a genre.  

Interestingly they were more in keeping with nineteenth-century theatre and the operatic tradition than the trends of modern drama: they were vast, lavish, opulent spectacles sweeping through epic, passionate narratives with rich, full, emotional orchestrations.

And at the forefront of this surging theatrical excitement was the wild success of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1986 musical Phantom of the Opera.

Years later, an aging composer who once wrote a masterpiece for his ingenue is struggling to find inspiration again, branch out to enrapture an international audience, and determine what his musical and personal legacy will  be.

Webber biography, right? No: this is the plot for his new Phantom sequel Love Never Dies that opened in Melbourne last night.

Webber calls it his most ‘personal’ work to date, and there is a real sense of wish-fulfilment in this musical: it studiously ignores dates, details and character elements established in its predecessor to indulge a love story, displace the villainy and transplant a theatrical world across an ocean from the Paris Opera house to Coney Island. The show was panned in London, cancelled on Broadway, and has been thoroughly revised by renowned director Simon Phillips for this latest production.

So after all the hype and hullaballoo: what do I think of Melbourne’s production of Love Never Dies?

Visually and from a production perspective, this show is unquestionably stunning. The sets and staging are wonderous, and the new location for the action gives designer Gabriela Tylesova glorious scope for the grotesque, gorgeous, gothic playground she creates. Like Meg’s ‘Bathing Beauty’ song, layers keep being stripped away to reveal costumes, scenery and lighting each more breath-taking and spectacular than the last.

It opens, not with an overture, but with a charm song obviously designed to (re)introduce the Phantom and let a new young star enchant an audience. Ben Lewis’ rendition of ‘Till I Hear You Sing was indeed divine, and his final note magical. The character has lost the complexity of the original, and Lewis’ lower register coming across as rather uneven later suggests he has yet to find his own iconic sound as a singer, but overall he gave an impressive performance.

Anna O’Bryne was a fresh-faced Christine with a luminous and lucid voice: even though trite lyrics often gave her little to work with emotionally (indeed, the whole show title proved a misnomer of sorts) she displayed wonderful charm and talent.

However for me, it was Simon Gleeson’s performance as Raoul that reverberated with all the passion and pathos and complexity I found lacking in the central love story. His character is reinvented as troubled and self-loathing, and in the opening of Act II where he asks “Why Does She Love Me?”, Gleeson transcended some banal lyrics to give a very real and moving delivery of the song. In many ways, this felt like the only moment of subtlety in the show.

Maria Mercedes was painfully angry as Mme. Giry, and there was a definite fascination in seeing Sharon Millerchip reprise the role of Meg and bring a real sense of growth as performer and character.

Webber’s songs are familiar yet not particularly memorable, but the orchestrations and voices are highly enjoyable. Moreover, the plot is thin but the ensemble led by carnivalesque Greek chorus Emma J. Hawkins, Paul Tabone and Dean Vince are deft and dynamic.

The real appeal of the show remains in the old-fashioned spectacle achieved with the latest in theatre technology: Love Never Dies is ultimately a sumptuous, sentimental production of pure and unadulterated melodrama, draped in lavish splendour. If there are recurring echos of the ridiculous and redundant at times, they are usually swirled away in the colour and action.

Does this production bring anything to the Phantom legacy? No. Does it spoil the original musical then? No. Is it an enjoyably excessive and entertaining night of theatre? Yes actually. Yes it is.

Love Never Dies is playing at The Regent Theatre from May 2011.

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