In an attempt to regain the glory he lost with such shows as Whistle Down the Wind, The Beautiful Game and The Woman in White – and believing in the maxim, if at first you succeed, try again – Andrew Lloyd Webber returns to the source of his biggest hit, The Phantom of the Opera.
But someone should have told him that sequels rarely work and Love Never Dies, which was 20 years in the making, is no exception. A quartet of writers – Lloyd Webber, Ben Elton, Glenn Slater and Frederick Forsyth collectively prove that four heads are not better than one – especially when the one is Gaston LeRoux’s, the creator of the enduring novel without which, etc.
What LeRoux created was the kind of fail-safe plot that claws into the imagination and refuses to let go. What Messrs Lloyd Webber and Co. have wrought, are six characters in search – not of an author, they’ve got enough of those – but a workable story-line that will move, engage and convince an audience.
In the absence of any such thing, we’re left with a tepid situation (it really can’t be called a plot) in which, ten years after the events depicted in Phantom, soprano Christine Daae, her now impecunious hubbie Raoul and their ten year-old son Gustav, travel from Paris to New York at the request of a certain Mr Y who makes them a financial offer they cannot refuse.
All Christine has to do is sing for him in a show he produces at Coney Island. What she doesn’t realise until her arrival in New York is that Mr Y is none other than the erstwhile Phantom of the Paris Opera, and, because, umm, love never dies, he is still besotted with her.
Oh, there’s a mini sub-plot of sorts involving ex-ballet mistress Madame Giry and her jealous dancer daughter Meg, neither of whom are a barrel of laughs. But then nothing in this musical is.
Gustav turns out to be the Phantom’s son, though why and how Christine allowed him that brief moment of passion ten years earlier, is never explained. Nor are we given any reason why Raoul, who, if memory serves, had pots of money in Phantom, is now down on his uppers.
More damagingly, it is never explained why the Phantom of the original, a psychopathic killer who indulged in some pretty anti-social behaviour, like dumping chandeliers on unsuspecting paying customers in the stalls, should become almost as wealthy as Lord Lloyd Webber and have morphed into a harmless eccentric with a passion for theatrical gadgets. Was he lobotomised? We need to be told.
And why, in the show’s preposterously operatic final scene (spoiler alert to follow) in which Christine is shot by the jealous Meg, does young Gustav seek solace in the arms of the Phantom, a stranger with a hideous facial scar he has only just learned is his real father? Wouldn’t he have rushed to his dying mother’s side to comfort her? Or seek out Raoul, who has done a runner on his family?
With so many questions to ask, and, frankly, with so little interest in the answers, all that’s left to enjoy is the music.
Ah, the music. Well, in common with most of Lloyd Webber’s shows, there are, to be sure, a couple of good tunes. And if they sound familiar, it’s because they are. I thought I detected a hint of Noel Coward’s A Room With A View in the Coney Island Waltz but in the main, the most blatant plagiarism is the composer stealing (or, to be more charitable, recycling) from himself.
The ubiquitous title song – and the best in the show – has a whiff of Adolph Deutsch’s theme tune from Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (the first four notes are identical), plus an essence of Puccini, without whose influence no ALW score would be complete.
The song, as everyone must know by now, was first heard in The Beautiful Game, which, though a financial failure, ran quite a long time. I know composers re-use material from shows that either closed in tryouts or within a week of opening. But to use as a title number a song from a fairly high-profile show that had a respectable run strikes me as unacceptable. And lazy.
Much of the rest of the score is characterised by lush, Lloyd Webber crescendi and the promise of soaring unforgettable melodies that never quite materialise.
Though the pervading musical ambience, with its duets, trios and quartets, rarely strays very far from operatic conventions, it also contains the obligatory nod in the direction of old-fashioned Broadway musical comedy (Heaven by the Sea). A real mish-mash of styles.
There’s not much to be said for Glenn Slater’s lyrics. Apart from the occasional infelicity, like rhyming ‘bother’ with ‘father’, the rhymes are generally clean and efficiently well-turned. Nothing, though, to give Stephen Sondheim a sleepless night. The cast, with the exception of Sierra Boggess as Christine, is no better than its material.
Ms Boggess’s ‘eleven o’clock’ title number is the evening’s only genuinely deserved show-stopper and she delivers it with spine-tingling conviction. There’s a real presence on stage whenever she appears – which, alas, cannot be said of Ramin Karimloo’s Phantom. His voice is fine, but where’s the personality? The charisma? If ever a show relied on its leading man to go beyond the call of duty and conjure magic where none exists, this is it.
Liz Robertson and Summer Strallen, always assets in whatever musical they appear, are more or less lost in the confusion of the first act (things improve marginally in the second) and one’s heart goes out to them, as it does to the usually excellent Joseph Millson as Raoul. The dashing hero of Phantom of the Opera is here reduced to an alcoholic loser with as little flesh and blood on him as a transparent projection on a scrim. Call it the show’s most thankless Raoul.
Though Jack O’Brien’s direction is more assured in the show’s less cluttered second half, he never manages to make us care about anything that’s happening; and as for Jerry Mitchell’s choreography, I can only ask ‘What choreography?’ Did I miss something?
Which leaves Bob Crowley’s sets and costumes and Jon Driscoll’s projection designs. They’re by far the best things in an evening that thinks it’s an opera but actually, is just another poor musical.
I left the theatre humming the proverbial scenery – oh, and the first four notes of The Apartment.
CLIVE HIRSCHHORN. Courtesy of This Is London.