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The Australian

May 29, 2011

Chris Boyd

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Phantom sequel spectacularly unmasked

IN Andrew Lloyd Webber's most successful creations, the staging has been inseparable from the composition. Imagine Cats without the junkyard set or Phantom of the Opera without the trademark mask.

We have to go back before Cats, to Jesus Christ Superstar in the early 1970s, to find a Lloyd Webber show where the production design was changed from one outing to the next. (Though a couple of years after Jim Sharman's 1972 original, the second tour of Superstar had a completely new look.)

That said, Lloyd Webber is not averse to radical workings of his less than ragingly successful premieres and, on more than one occasion, the "out of town try-out" has come after the West End premiere. As happened here in Australia.

Local director Gale Edwards found a pulse in Lloyd Webber's 1989 show Aspects of Love and nurtured it, turning a slight piece into an affecting and honest couple of hours of theatre. It was this production that went on to tour Britain.

"I wasn't really happy with this in London," said Lloyd Webber of Love Never Dies, his sequel to Phantom of the Opera, after the first performance of Simon Phillips's vibrant and handsome new production on Saturday night.

A far more conservative and less organic opus than the original Phantom, Love Never Dies is given a spectacular and dramatically secure reading by the outgoing Melbourne Theatre Company artistic director. But there are dramaturgical limits to what can be done with, say, the re-sequencing of songs in a musical.

A handful of substantial plot twists in this incarnation of Love Never Dies are not suggested by - or foreshadowed in - the score. One imagines they were not foreseen by the composer either. Meg Giry's mad scene medley is far and away the most ludicrous of these. Not even Sharon Millerchip, who played Meg in the original Australian production of Phantom of the Opera 20 years ago, can make the scene work.

Written by Lloyd Webber and Ben Elton with contributions from Glenn Slater and Frederick Forsyth (Day of the Jackal) and additional lyrics by Charles Hart, the story is as rickety and jerry-rigged as a Coney Island roller coaster.

The prosaic sow's ear lyrics rarely transcend banality. And, on the whole, cast members are not equal to the substantial dramatic demands Phillips makes of them.

(By contrast, Graeme Murphy's choreography is perfectly judged, managing to look interesting without making excessive demands on cast members.)

Anna O'Byrne is the obvious and vital exception. As Christine Daae, the object of the phantom's creative and carnal desire, O'Byrne is absolutely equal to the many challenges of the role. Her acting is as assured and natural as her singing. Though operatically trained, O'Byrne's elastic soprano adapts well to music theatre roles. In her brief professional career, O'Byrne has already run the gamut from Pamina to Polly Peachum.

Ben Lewis, likewise, has a truly remarkable register-straddling voice. I suppose, technically, he's a baritone. But it's a voice without a red-line, with power and torque right across the rev range. But, if anything, Lewis's voice is a little too full blooded for the role. This phantom is rather corporeal. (He towers over his rival Raoul as well.)

Musically, there are some riches - a fluttering duet between Meg and Christine for example - but few surprises.

Though it initially feels like a contrivance, the introduction of Christine's 10-year-old son Gustave (Kurtis Papadinis) gives Love Never Dies some desperately needed complexity, dramatically and musically.

Something of a prodigy, the boy has a penchant for making up enigmatic and shimmering melodies - there's a faintly disturbing whiff of Benjamin Britten about them that begs to be elaborated upon - and these are among the most imaginative and intriguing in Lloyd Webber's score.

Inevitably Love Never Dies quotes the odd phrase from Phantom of the Opera, though fewer (and less often) than you might expect. Shrewdly, Lloyd Webber chooses the harsher "music's throne" organ motif, enough to break up the regular textures of the new composition but not so much as to make us pine for the earlier work.

Gabriela Tylesova's sets - Coney Island carnival, deco interiors, a shabby bar - are endlessly fascinating; they're spectacular without being ostentatious. The main feature is an upright metal circle, part Luna Park mouth, part Stargate. Her costumes, too, are gorgeous. Though, again, the phantom is a little too "of this world" - too unexceptional - for my liking.

The best thing Lloyd Webber has written in the quarter century since Phantom of the Opera, Love Never Dies is still a missed opportunity. It toys half-heartedly with domestic melancholia. Christine's wealthy suitor Raoul, 10 years on, is an insecure and possessive husband who uses his wife's talents to pay off his gambling debts. He frets that he cannot deliver to Christine "the rush that music brings", leaving her vulnerable, once more, to her angel of music. Love Never Dies provides several of those rush moments, but doesn't quite connect the starry dots.