Fringe Online 2020
The 2011 Regent Theatre Melbourne production is directed by Simon Philips with Set and Costumes by Gabriela Tylesova, Lighting Nick Schlieper’s, and Choreography Graeme Murphy. Musical Supervisor Guy Simpson – David Cullen and Lloyd Webber orchestrated, with original sound design by Mick Potter. Head of Make-Up and Wigs David Jennings.
Film directed by Brett Sullivan
Produced by Helen Parker Clayton Jacobson, Brett Sullivan, Executive Musical co-Producer Nigel Wright.
Some might again experience buffering issues, not present in the first two broadcasts, which might be down to the uptake. Just before the interval it became on first viewing more buffering opera than opera buffa. For a day only. Till April 26th (19.00).
The spoiler in Love Never Dies is the prequel as it were and there’s no terror. It’s a musical where the intimacy learned in say Aspects of Love and the underrated Sunset Boulevard get crossed with something out of Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret. This is because it’s ten years on – 1907 – and we’re on Coney Island New York.
The Phantom broods again as grand manipulator whilst the once-ardent Raoul’s now a gambling roué needs to shore up his gambling debts, only stanched by Christine’s stellar career as an opera singer. Raoul’s all too aware he can’t satisfy Christine in the way that really turns her on: music. He fears she’s yearning for her angel. He’s got a point. And there’s their son Gustave.
Criticized by sympathetic writers as a kind of Oedipal revenge by Lloyd’s Webber’s later self on his earlier success, in some agon with it, yes: it’s certainly dark-hued, fascinating. If it feeds off that darkness, fine by this writer!
Even more if it feeds off the rasp of Cabaret and its transplanted decadence. It’s the music that counts.
Love Never Dies stars Ben Lewis Phantom and Anna O’Byrne Christine, Madame Giry Maria Mercedes, Raoul Simon Gleeson and Meg Giry Sharon Millerchip.
We start with long string melodies out of Vaughan Williams’ Tallis Fantasia with a dash of Wagner’s Parsifal. And a bit of Puccini in modal, and pentatonic notes. We’re soon back with Kander and Ebb. This is to point you to the soundworld so you can imagine it: not to point out derivativeness. Lloyd-Webber’s power lies in his unique re-invention; creating a musical world like no-one else’s. Think what it was before him, especially in the UK. There’s sometimes imperfect synthesis, but a few great musicals, those first two and Phantom supremely, are unforgettable.
Love Never Dies has the advantage of greater intimacy, an uneasy family triangle, old wounds and rivalries and most of all the ache of old music – decisively not revisited as such here, save just once.
It’s a great storyline for a start, originally by Frederick Forsyth, then Ben Elton with input and lyrics from Glenn Salter. Charles Hart again supplies additional lyrics. The only trouble is it’s not fast-moving; intimacy means there’s less incident to hit on. It can drag though it’s a far briefer musical coming in at 110 minutes.
The calibre of Lloyd-Webber’s collaborators (set and costumes Gabriela Tylesova, Nick Schlieper’s lighting, Graeme Murphy’s choreography) can be seen in this Australian production, the rewrite that salvaged Love Never Dies from its disastrous London premiere in 2010.
So the scene breaks into an elaborate circus (‘Coney Island Waltz’). Introduced by a gargoyle trio, the whirligig swells into acrobats stilt-walkers, fire-twirlers, magicians.
It’s all a bit Luna Park, which Franz Schrecker turned to account in his opera The Branded in 1918 – a composer Lloyd-Webber echoes to some purpose. Lewis’s Phantom lurks above the Coney Island (’Til I Hear You Sing’), frolics courtesy of the Girys – mother and daughter Meg, who’s living a demi-mondaine life. Turns out as Christine’s Met date (invitation, Oscar Hammerstein!!) is announced bringing her over from Paris: and they’ve been hiding the Phantom. They’re desperate for all that not to kick off again, both resentful and admiring of Christine.
‘Just Like Way Back When’ is a good soundtrack song, noirish in feel and with an orchestral feed into the next scene, that anxious family triangle en route to the Met but taking a fateful stop-off for the child to see Coney Island. There’s quite a few silences, a few beats long, film-score accompaniment seguing between.
This is often film music, Puccini smeared when wet, a rather glorious sound. ‘I was yours long ago… on one brief night’ – wow. We have moved on a bit. Lewis and O’Byrne are glorious in their first duet after a hissy fit, ‘Beneath the Moonless Sky’ is an operetta sound of exotica you’d find in The Land of Smiles. O’Byrne’s delivery inhabits precisely that Viennese mix of schmaltz and light clarity.
It’s absolutely first-rate too, up there with the best in Phantom if not supplanting its torch-song. O’Byrne hits the top notes with a crystalline purity that cuts through the occasionally gloopy orchestral soundtrack as transmitted. Happily diction everywhere is pretty clear, sometimes spittingly so, but duetting’s sometimes obscured by sheer instrumental opulence.
It’s rather long, but there’s some wonderful angry duetting with ebb and candour; then the boy turns up. Won’t Christine sing just one song? Threats start. The Phantom of the Opera is here! And that’s melody’s back on a muted trumpet.
Meanwhile ‘Old Friends’ in three-time like a Viennese waltz brings on an equivocal set of reunions and poor Meg – Millerchip ‘s superb in this expanded role – finds she’s been pipped in her big break (just one aria too) as Christine is to sing, and Mercedes spits venom well.
All this whilst little Gustave strays off and the Phantom finds he’s musically gifted. What? Yeah I missed something in Phantom or could it be a rewrite? ‘The Beauty Underneath’ is certainly the most interesting mode of communicating a life-changer I’ve seen,
Its an astonishing set with revolving mirrored chambers mermaids writhing inside flesh-lit against the blue-grey fug. Well the kid doesn’t like it and as Meg takes him off (she knows her place) we get the lovers duetting again, back to operetta. This helps, it’s storytelling and O’Byrne can convey storytelling with lyrical heft and clarity.
So the Girys, Madame in particular are dark drivers, bitterly resentful at their replacement after ten years service. And a dissolute Raoul doesn’t help at the start of Act Two. After the lovers and Meg’s intervention quoting the reunion song warning Raoul there’s another confrontation in a bar with Raoul and Phantom ‘Devil Take the Hindmost’, Phantom making Raoul a bet he can’t refuse. It’s an effective number too.
Gleeson’s Raoul is less the hero, more the ineffectual also-ran, which in a sense robs dramatic tension from the erotic triangle; but a plot-point skews that anyway. Gleeson’s frayed role has fewer opportunity to let him shine but he’s good particularly in intimate settings where the quieter lyricism lets him shine.
All the second act’s leavened by pieces like this, Meg’s ‘Bathing Beauty’ with dancing ensemble. ‘Love Never Dies’ might be the musical’s title but is initially sung between Raoul and Christine; you feel cheated. Still it develops. Lewis all through is fine vocally, mostly clean, just a lack of finish in consonants. O’Byrne soars and is the star of this production.
As you do with the plot’s unravelling. There’s a distinctly marine feel to Meg these days, a mermaid out of the mirrored interior, taking dips being a bathing beauty. Millerchip rises to a tragic unstable intensity, and is one of the great character and plot developments.
Though… ‘Diamonds never sparkle bright/unless they are set just right’ Phantom tells Meg just before the crisis. Well that’ll help. Ultimately it’s a great story premise but tries to twist dark from slightly improbable sources. But yes mental distress, seared influence and a sad shlocking denouement. Still there’s a sharp tender shock in the epilogue.
There’s fine supporting work from Emma J Hawkins’ Fleck, Paul Tabone’s Squelch, Dean Vince’s Gangle and of course Jack Lyall’s Gustave makes a more than vocally winning debut: such assurance, such spot—on vocals. It’s treasurable and one hopes he went on to drama school.
There’s certainly a wrench of characters, darkening the bland Raoul, redeeming the dark Phantom. In between the quarter-century we’ve had sympathies for various devils, vampires and Hannibal Lecter; though some characters strain their original moorings, it’s a creative choice. What’s interesting is that Christine and the Phantom feel far less inhibition so the tension must come from the plot – and the one person who might bring them together. The stunning set tells more of the story than it should, the initial premise is superb, but the story hangs fire a little and the end doesn’t seem inevitable.
It’s a pity: set and Lloyd-Webber’s music recall the best of Sunset Boulevard, another musical initially from 1993 that in its 2009 makeover – Catherine Evans in the title role, stunning choreography by Craig Revell-Hallwood – persuaded us of a lost hit. And it so nearly is.
‘Diamonds never sparkle bright/unless they are set just right.’ Love Never Dies needs a more fundamental makeover in the book itself. Meanwhile we have the scenario, at least two songs, and the orchestral score: this particular production’s set proves it one of the most fascinating dark-hued musicals Lloyd-Webber’s written. Some think it’s one of his very best. Add ‘potentially’ and that’s not an unfair judgement.