LOVE NEVER DIES
Musical in 2 Acts by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Book by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Ben Elton, Lyrics by Glenn Slater, and additional Lyrics by Charles Hart
Performance by The Really Useful Company Asia Pacific and Arts Capital Trust on Friday, 24th March 2012 at The Capitol Theatre, Sydney
Musical Director Guy Simpson
Director Simon Phillis
Scenery Designer Gabriella Tylesova
Costume Designer Gabriella Tylesova
Lighting Designer Nick Schlieper
Choreography Graeme Murphy
Sound Designer Mick Potter
The Phantom Ben Lewis
Christine Daae Anna O’Byrne
Madam Giry Maria Mercedes
Raoul Simon Gleeson
Meg Giry Sharon Millerchip
Fleck Emma Hawkins
Squelch Paul Tabone
Gangle Dean Vince
Gustave George Cartwright, or Tyrone Geany, or Beau Woodbridge
I must admit that until recently I have never been a great fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals. They have always struck me as being one hit works, unlike the great musicals of Rogers and Hammerstein, and Lerner and Lowe that produced literally strings of hit songs from each of their major works. This opinion started to change with Webber’s SUNSET BOULEVARDE . Drawn to the subject of the musical based on the great film of the same name, I bought the CD of the complete work as soon as it hit the music store stands. Similarly, I downloaded the complete LOVE NEVER DIES as soon as it was released and prior to it’s unfortunate West End production which was initially panned by many London critics. The notion of developing the Phantom’s story interested me greatly, and the idea of his reappearance at Coney Island seemed a marvellous setting for another instalment, and all that such a setting could offer theatrically.More interestingly this piece appeared to have a lot more than one hit tune !
It seems that it has taken several re-writes, judicious cuts, moving of several musical numbers and the assembly of an enormously talented production team in the colonies to realise the full potential of Webber’s new work. The production team above reads like a who’s who of Australian theatrical genius, and the production they have dreamed up and staged is sumptuous, extravagant, bold and pure theatre magic.
Initially opening in the Regent Theatre, Melbourne last year, the production is being staged in the Capitol Theatre Sydney for a mere 12 weeks. I suspect the brief run is due to a lack of theatre stock in Sydney and the queue of waiting productions for Sydney, rather than insufficient box office. Although I did not attend the production in Melbourne, numerous production stills suggest that the physical production and sets fits better in the Sydney venue than the Melbourne theatre.
The massive set is predominated by huge pieces of roller coaster track (the infamous Cyclone of Coney Island) running around the internal stage and also projecting out into the theatre on two huge towers on the side of the stage and in front of the proscenium. Sections of track can be elevated down from outside the proscenium to produce a catwalk in front of the stage at various heights. Within this construction and the thousand of lights that outline the roller coaster in the distance at the back of the stage, various roll on sets for rooms, ship docks, and the Phantoms Eyrie are breezed on stage to great theatrical effect. In fact great theatrical effect is a gross understatement, as the sets and staging is the most spectacular and brilliant staging of any theatrical work I have ever seen.
The musical has apart from the operatic theme of the story line, several features in common with opera. Apart from some spoken interjections by chorus members at the dock when Christine Daae arrives in New York with Raoul (now her husband of 10 years) and their son Gustave, the piece is completely written through. Recitative like motive blend seamlessly with melodic songs, duets, large set pieces and even a splendid quartet (‘Dear old friends’ featuring Madam Giry, Meg Giry, Raoul and Christine). The series of extended duets one after the other, in the Hotel scene between the Phantom and Christine featuring beautiful melody after another with various moods and rhythms is very reminiscent of the grand duets used by Meyerbeer in his grand operas (perhaps Webber’s nod to the origin of the singers at the Paris Opera). The highly theatrical production is probably reminiscent of the over the top stagings of grand opera in the early half of the nineteenth century in Paris. Certainly this style of production magic is what modern opera has to deliver for some works if it wants to reclaim audiences from other forms of modern musical theatre.
The great set pieces of the Phantom’s opening ‘Til I hear you sing” and Christine’s ‘aria’ - ‘Love never dies’ are great and memorable tunes, as our the quartet, Christine and Gustaves’ duet ‘Look with your Heart’, Raoul’s Act II opening song ‘Why does she love me’ , Raoul and the Phantom’s duet ‘Devil Take the hindmost’ as well as the mesmerising Coney Island Waltz. Webber pulls put all the pushes for a through back to his JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR rock roots with the Finale to Act I – ‘The beauty underneath”. The musical is a rich trove of rich musical styles and great and memorable tunes.
In the starring role of the Phantom, young Australian baritone Ben Lewis totally hits the mark. With a a rich baritone voice that easily encompasses the high tessitura of the role he looks, acts and sounds the just as magnificent as Anthony Warlow in the original Australian PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and better than Ramin Karimloo from the London cast and original recording. Spookily he looked remarkably like his father, the great Australian baritone Michael Lewis even with his mask in place.
The very young and stunningly attractive Anna O’Byrne also is ideal for the role of Christine Daae. She has a stunning light soprano used to considerable advantage, although she had some difficulty with the upper tessitura of the title song on the night after a long run and matinee earlier on the day. She still brought the house down with the number.
Maria Mercedes and Sharon Millerchip as Madame and Meg Giry was certainly casting for strength and both were terrific in the roles. Simon Gleeson as Christine’s husband Raoul was outstanding in a role difficult to like. The young boy performing on the night reviewed was excellent with good stage presence and a fine soprano voice.
The availability of Australian Emma J Hawkins, a short statured performer with a “bag of tricks bigger than herself” allowed the director to alter the role of Fleck from a dancer to a short statured performer. And what a creation this proved to be. Emma sang and danced up a storm and was a welcome addition to the very edgy trio of circus performers – Fleck, Squelck and Gangle. Paul Tabone (with a glorious tenor voice) and Dean Vince – both extremely versatile and seasoned performers completed the cast.
The final, tragic and deeply moving scene of the piece was played out on a cat work lowered over the orchestra pit.
My impression is that this work, so often the butt of comments by well meaning reviewers over the years since its creation claiming the lyrics, story and music are poor, are quite misguided. I found it a marvellous piece of theatre, with great music and totally engaging dramatically. Australia has proved yet again that it really knows how to mount these works with strong casts the equal if not better than in London or New York.
I walked out of the theatre with a tear in the eye, a spring in my step, and humming at least half a dozen memorable tunes – what more can you ask for ?