Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Review: Love Never Dies (Or Does It?)

I just watched the Regent Theatre performance of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Love Never Dies." The perfect fuel for one of my favorite ranting subjects!

I may not have gotten it down in this blog as of yet regarding my favorite things to complain about in the fictional world (The Phantom of the Opera, Jekyll & Hyde, Frankenstein...) but I've been wanting to complain about "Love Never Dies" ever since the moment I first heard of it. But, gosh darnit, I have scruples about not criticizing things I've never seen, and didn't want to bitch about it lest I prove myself wrong later. And I am never one in position to see stage productions of any kind, so I thought my lips would be eternally sealed about my beef with LND. But, LO! The Australian production was recorded on a special BluRay and DVD edition! Huzzah!

Going into it I knew the whole story and all of the pros and cons of it thanks to a very entertaining person by the name of The Phantom Reviewer. He essentially reviews anything and everything ever to do with the Phanom and has a YouTube channel, as well as one on for more freedom from the copyright regime. Among the reviews was of Fredrick Forsythe's The Phantom of Manhatten, which is what "Love Never Dies" is veerrryyy loosely based on. Here is the review:

I love him and his insights, and I must admit, if it wasn't for him I probably wouldn't have given LND a chance. I did, and with as open a mind as I could possibly have regarding a sequel that is hated as much as it's loved by the "phans."

Now,  I enjoy the original Phantom, but I don't see it as flawless. Nor do I see the book or movies as flawless. What I do love about it, and somehow keeps me coming back for more, is the Phantom himself. He's a fascinating character in a fascinating setting (I mean the Paris Opera House). In fact, out of all the characters in The Phantom of the Opera tale, he's probably the most dynamic. So, with that in mind, I'm going to finally begin my critique of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Love Never Dies," filmed and performed in the Regent Theatre in Melbourne, Australia.

Continue at your own peril!


Okay, the gist of the plot is this: The year: 1907. Ten years after the the ending of "The Phantom of the Opera" where the Phantom let's Christine go to marry Raoul, he is now living on Coney Island (Yes, you read that right). For the past decade he's been working his way to the top in the entertainment business with the help of Madame Giry and her daughter Little Meg Giry, two characters who had relatively limited importance in the original story. The Phantom is now called "Mr. Y" and runs a show called Phantasma. I guess his pseudonym is supposed to be a pun of sorts. You know. Mr. Y. Mister Y. Mistery. Mystery. Get it? Clever.

I guess 10 years is enough time to transistion from Opera to... Ooh-La-La girls.

These ten long years, the Phantom has been tortured and depressed because he has no Christine to manipulate and spy on-- I mean to coach and be insipred by to write music. So, I guess he uses his tricks to lure her, her hubby Raoul and their son to America with a job proposition. When they arrive, of course all hell is expected to break loose. And I guess it kinda does?

The de Chagney's arrive in America.

There's the basic plot that gets things rolling. Now, I'm just going to skip the rest and dive right into those spoilers that I warned you about. And frankly, I think you'll be better off knowing them ahead of time to save you from the shock of facepalming yourself every ten minutes during the show. If you see these things coming, you should be able to pay attention more and hopefully take away the good things in this show... They exist, I promise.

First of all, the character of the Phantom was virtually wussied down in the sequel. I suppose one could argue the character's development over the years, maybe he learned some humility, or whatever. But, the one thing that I felt made the Phantom the Phantom was that he was-- to put it lightly-- deranged. In the Andrew Lloyd Webber version of the tale, he wears only half a mask. That, to me, does not constitute a good enough reason to live in rat infested cellars, stalking people, murdering them, and blackmailing to get the money for his pretty clothes. But, that insanity is kind of what made me fall in love with the character. He was menacing. I LOVE IT.

(DVD capture from "Love Never Dies." This is him peeping menacingly from her mirror. *swoon*)

Unfortunately, in "Love Never Dies" he seems to have gotten a menace-oscopy. He's a grumpy puppy now. There is no murder, just flippant threats and lightweight blackmail. He kind of lost his Phantomy air, which is sad. I do give credit to whoever directed and/or wrote the Australian version. From what I know of the original London production of LND, the Phantom was even more fluffy and less dangerous. In fact, there is quite a significant number of difference between the London and Melbourne productions. In the Melbourne version, they seemed to have amputated some of the worst and expendible things that weighed down the London version. For instance, one or two of the somewhat obnoxious Coney Island numbers. The Phantom's Christine robot. The organ playing Gorilla (which I actually kinda wanted to see.... <_<). Meg was also toned down in her bitch/psycho attitude, and Madame Giry made a little less Norman Bates.

I think my favorite scene from the Melbourne verson is when the Phantom confronts Christine for the first time and gives a glimpse of that original craziness that made him so elegantly loony and alluring in the "Phantom of the Opera." You know, the wide-eyed, clenched fist, light on his mask, "You will sing for me or else, Christine! I own you!" But here's another great part about the sequel. Christine 2.0.

Christine in a new kind of outfit as she sings the title song, "Love Never Dies." Boring song, awesome dress.

Unlike just about every version of the Phantom story, movies, and stage productions alike, they seemed to have given Christine a bit of fire in the Australian performance. When the Phantom popped up out of nowhere and told her to sing, she replied with, "Aw hell, no, you crazy mo'fo'!" But... you know, more eloquently. That scene, which is very close to the beginning of the story, actually had me smiling. I was getting high hopes for this story. That was the reaction that I wanted to see from Christine when she's faced with Mr. Crazy Pants again. Aside from damn good singing lessons, what the hell did he ever do for her but give her nightmares and make her feel violated? Come on.

Unfortunately, as the story progresses in LND, she and the Phantom both seem to become pure slop and sap of fluffy, mushy, love and regret. They acted as though they just had an unfortunate breakup ten years ago because he family moved out of town and she had to go with them. This isn't The Notebook. This is supposed to be more of a gothic tale with opera themes! I'm all for her having some unexplainable graviation towards him, because that's apparent in the character interaction. But that simplified romance of "I love you and nothing else matters, not even marriage or murder" attitude totally lost me and lost the original feel of the story, I thought. I could rant about that all night, so... Moving on!

Gustave. That's the name of Christine and Raoul's son. He's ten years old. The kicker (or yawner)? Apparently we are informed through the song "Beneath a Moonless Sky" that Christine and the Phantom hooked up for a one night stand 10 years ago the night before she was supposed to marry Raoul. So many things wrong with this that I will only touch on a few of them. For one, the ending of "Phantom of the Opera" did not seem to be leading up to a hot night under a moonless sky. Granted, the only way she would be able to sleep with him is if she couldn't see his face. Hence, you know... no moon. Though, who wouldn't take ALW's Phantom in a well lighted room over this?

Gerard Butler, eat your heart out.
I probably don't need to call spoiler with this but... SPOILER! Gustave is the Phantom's son! *le Gasp!* Again, as many reviewers of "Love Never Dies" have noticed as well, there are many fallacies in this conclusion. 1) The Phantom figured it out because Gustave knew how to play piano a little and likes to make up his own music. Uncanny. Must be his! Never mind the fact that he was raised with music because his mother is an opera singer. Irrelevant. 2) She did the dance-with-no-pants with the Phantom the night before her birthday-clothes-wedding-march with Raoul the next day. How is she supposed to tell who the baby daddy is? 3) It's just a terrible and contrived plot device that they kept from Forsythe's novel and probably shouldn't have.

"The Beauty Underneath" where the Phantom has the misguided idea to show the kid his lair, then his face. (Side note: I felt like I was on drugs during this number. It was damn cool.)

I think Raoul deserves a little blurb too... For one thing, I never did understand why there are so many Raoul haters in the phandom. As a writer I have an appreciation for him in the story as the necessary contrast to the Phantom. He's there to show (at least he was supposed to) just how bonkers the Phantom was and to be the morally guided, innocent youth to save Christine from a character who, for all intents and purposes, was a villain. I like him. He's not a bad guy, just a little... namby pamby. Just because he doesn't write sexy songs or wear a nice suit or know how to play the mystery card, that's no reason to hate on him! Poor guy was always doing the right thing as best he could. That being said, I think the writers (and probably Andrew Lloyd Webber himself) must have hated Raoul as much as the phans and decided to justify it. Our fair haired little Viscomte was turned into an angry drunk who didn't give a continental for his wife and son and apparently got them buried in debt because he's a gambler. Whhaaaat? Steadfast and chivalroud Raoul? Welp, I guess if you're going to write a fluff-fest between the Phantom and Christine, gotta get Raoul out of the picture somehow. And justify Christine's willingness to commit adultery. Just like a poorly written fan fiction. Exit Raoul, alone and destitute. I was more sad for Raoul than I was for all participants in the climax of the story.

Simon Gleeson as Raoul. The only adult character in the story who should have had a chance at a happy ending. Just sayin'.

The ending is the thing that makes or breaks a story, and whatever potential "Love Never Dies" had, was shattered irrevocably by the ending. Dear God, what have those writers done?! While I'm fairly certain there was a good number of people who found themselves tearing up at the ending, I had this look on my face:

The word that I've seen tossed around in reviews regarding LND is "Contrived," and I couldn't have chosen a better word myself. It was contrived. All of it. More than anything, the ending. I know what they were aiming for. They wanted to bring a tragic and powerful ending to these horribly star crossed characters and make the audience weep at the beauty (a word you will hate after watching LND, I promise you) and impossible love. But I can't help feeling like they failed horribly. The ending was straight out of a 90's movie, complete with crazy person brandishing a gun. After Christine at last performs for the Phantom, they find that Gustave is missing. First they think Raoul took him. Nope. Madame Giry? Nope. Meg? Yup! Meg Giry, gone crazy because the Phantom never noticed her, takes Gustave to the docks of Coney Island presumably for a swim. The lad can't swim and she liked to make a point of people nicely disappearing in the cold, wet depths. The Phantom, Christine, and Madame Giry catch up to them, Meg pulls out a gun. She gives them Gustave, since all the wanted was to be notcied by the Phantom. The gun goes to her head, and the Phantom seems to slip out of character like a puppy in a laundry shoot to coax ger to give him the gun. He says comforting things to let her know he understands how she feels, and everything's going good. He says, we can't all be pretty and perfect. Can't argue there, he's an expert in not being pretty. Then he adds, "We can't all be like Christine." *FACEPALM* Meg goes ballistic (and who can blame her) and the Phantom tries to take the gun, but it goes off and hits Christine. Everyone cries, she dies. Raoul's gone and Gustave is left with his real father, whom he accepts despite the ugly face. But then Raoul is suddenly back without a word. The End. And it's terrible.

I probably went into more detail than necessary for the ending, but I at least wanted to give a taste as to why it's so... cringe worthy. It's a cop out way to produce tears from people by bringing in a gun and shooting down Christine. What I would like to know is, what necessitated her death in relation to the plot? The tragedy of it might have been more profound if she and the Phantom had been fighting to be together for all these years, no just coping without. It just... doesn't work.

There is a lot more to tear apart in regards to the story, but I'll try to leave it there. Since I picked out the Australian production, I think it only fair to mention the cast, directing, and other performances.

Playing the Phantom in this version is Ben Lewis. I've never seen any other performance of his and only have this DVD recording to judge by, so I'll be fair. He was good, I thought. Very tall, commanding posture, and had great gestures fit for the Phantom. He also had the constant wide-eyed expression that was a little creepy and laughable at times, but comforted me in thinking the Phantom may still be psychotic after all. Of his singing, I wouldn't say he was my favorite Phantom, but he was still very good. When I say "very good" I mean he didn't sound like Michael Crawford (sorry).

Cuts a nice phantomy figure.

In the role of Christine was Anna O'Byrne. I thought she was great. With the make up she was reminiscent of a porcelain doll and I would like to think it was her acting that gave Christine the spark of life that the character tends to lack. The character is (and ought to be) conflicted with a ton of emotions, which I thought she pulled off along with a great singing voice.

All in all, I can't think of anyone I didn't like in this cast. Loved Simon Gleeson as Raoul, and Sharon Millerchip as Meg Giry. I also especially loved the Phantom's henchmen, Gangle (Dean Vince), Squelch (Paul Tabone) and Fleck (Emma J Hawkins). They were very much improved-- particularly Fleck-- from the London version.

Fleck (Emma J. Hawkins), Gangle (Dean Vince), and Squelch (Paul Tabone) in all their carny glory.
In fact, Coney Island and it's carnival atmosphere seemed better all around in the Australian production. It was dark and creepy. If I was to imagine the Phantom running a carnival, I think it would be just that. In the London version, it seemed more cheeseball American musical from the 1940's or something. Rather grating on the senses...

I doubt Coney Island ever had anything like this but... I like it!

If you've read this far, then you probably won't be surprised when I say that I have very mixed feelings about "Love Never Dies." The general plot is an abomination, the music is decent (one or two I admittedly adore), the cast of the Australian production at the Regent Theatre is great. Within the terrible plot, flashes of quality came through occasionally. If you're a phan of any sort, I suggest you rent, or buy (or YouTube) the BluRay/DVD film of LND and judge for yourself. There are things to enjoy even if the story makes you ill. Try to enjoy it, since I (mostly) did!

Another aspect of the show that doesn't match anything else. Wish I knew whose face that was...