Andrew Lloyd Webber’s (add to that Charles Hart lyrics and Richard Stilgoe lyrics and co-author of the book) Phantom of the Opera was not received warmly by the critics when it opened in 1986, but it has gone on to earn an estimated $5 billion worldwide because of public acclaim. The reasons for its success are probably to be found in the Gaston Leroux novel used as the basis for the show, the lush orchestrations of Webber’s music by David Cullen and Webber, the glorious settings by Maria Bjornson, and the spotless direction by Hal Prince and musical numbers staged by Gillian Lynne.

Sadly, most of this seems to be missing from the Webber / Ben Elton / Frederick Forsyth sequel entitled Love Never Dies. The main problem here is the book that Webber, Elton, and Forsyth have created here. Leroux’s work is mysterious and filled with underlying tensions; the sequel is filled with adolescent petulance. The Phantom is no longer a hypnotically dangerous and secretive creature; he is now a love-lost puppy whining for Christine. If one knows the novel or the original musical, the change is nauseating and one of the weakest possible choices that could be made for this character.

Leroux knew what he was doing; he wanted a finite end to his story. At the end of the novel, Christine visits the Phantom’s bones on the banks of the lake underneath the Paris Opera and places a gold ring on his skeleton. It is done. Here, not only has the Phantom been alive for the past ten years, he is also the impresario of a strange theatre / sideshow / freak show / something that is doing quite well. He was shuttled to the United States by Madam Giry and her daughter Meg. Sweet little Meg from the original is now the “Ooh-La-La Girl” who will do anything to win the Phantom’s love and admiration, including strip, and Madam Giry is also totally devoted to the Phantom as well to further her daughter’s new career.

The dashing Raoul has had a bit of a rough time in the past ten years. He is no longer dashing but seems to do nothing but yell and complain. He also drinks and has a gambling problem which is why the family ventures to Coney Island. Christine is to sing at the Phantom’s theatre / sideshow / freak show / something for a large sum of money. Of course, Christine and Raoul have no idea that it is the Phantom, now known as “Mr. Y,” who has hired her to sing.

“Why?” indeed.

Christine seems to be walking through a haze through most of the story. She makes excuses for her husband and professes her love for him and their son, Gustave.

If you don’t want to have the story spoiled for you, do not read any further. However, if rumors are correct and the production team has any sense at all, this story will be changing by the time the show makes it to Broadway supposedly in November of 2010.

Gustave seems to want to know about the darker and stranger sides of life, and this should not be a surprise. He is the illegitimate lovechild of Christine and the Phantom. Christine apparently truly loved the Phantom despite all of the horrors she obviously showed towards him, and she had sex with him on their last meeting. Even though she has some sort of deep-rooted feelings for the Phantom, she is true to Raoul. It’s no wonder that the Phantom is pining for Christine; she is probably the only woman with whom he has had sex.

In this book, it is no longer simply the strange story of the Phantom’s obsession with Christine’s voice and Christine believing that he is the “Angel of Music” sent by her dead father; the story is cluttered with four other stories fighting for prominence. The focus is lost, the characters are weakened, and there is simply no reason to care about them.

In the end, Meg is driven over the edge by her need for the Phantom’s approval and love and her mother’s intense urgings. She takes Gustave to the spot known as “Suicide Leap” or something like that, and since Gustave announces within the first minutes that he is on stage that he cannot swim, one suspects the worse. The Phantom and Christine arrive; Meg shoots Christine by accident; Christine dies; The Phantom mourns for a few seconds and then takes Gustave, who now likes him, away, leaving the babbling Meg with Christine’s body.

Shortly before this, Raoul has left thinking that Christine has chosen the Phantom over him because Christine never really says how she feels. Her character is bizarrely mute concerning her life with Raoul for no apparent reason other than, if she said something, there would be no reason for most of the conflict here.

What the creators needed was someone outside of their circle to act as the “voice of reason” and say, “No” or ask the all-important question, “What are you thinking?”

Musically, the show is a hodgepodge that is as unfocused as the book. Some of the music, such as the Phantom’s “’Til I hear You Sing” and the duet “Once Upon Another Time,” is pleasant, but the pastiche songs for Meg Giry are not up to the rest of the score, and the chorus pieces to set the scenes are totally unnecessary and distracting. A high-point of the score is when Meg, Madame Giry, Christine, and Raoul all meet for the first time. Christine’s friendship with Meg is obviously a thing of the past, and their acidic song “Dear Old Friend” is good musical theatre fare.

The most disappointing song of the evening is the title song. “Love Never Dies” has had at least two other incarnations. In one of them, another Webber / Elton musical called The Beautiful Game, it was used to much better purpose as “Our Kind of Love.” It’s a rather simplistic melody that doesn’t soar the way some of Webber’s other songs such as those written for Norma Desmond (“With One Look” and “As If We Never Said Goodbye”) do. After two-hours of the show building up to what is supposed to be the song the Phantom has been working on for Christine to sing for the past ten years, “Love Never Dies” falls flat. It’s a nice little song. It’s nothing special where special is needed. Also, the frenetic direction of Jack O’Brien has the stage turning with Raoul and the Phantom fighting for Christine’s attention while upstaging her in what should be the song of the evening.

O’Brien has several Tony awards for directing plays and musicals such as Hairspray and The Full Monty, but his work here is cluttered and awkward. It almost seems self-conscious and very aware that it is a musical. Where Prince’s staging of the original Phantom had an obvious flow and a sense of purpose, O’Brien’s staging is frantic and confusing. The characters, as drawn by the script are flat, and he doesn’t seem to have helped them remedy that if it’s even possible. In the end, they are a series of caricatures looking for meaning. The evening is kaleidoscopic and wandering like an attack of musical vertigo.

Physically, the lighting design by Paule Constable and projection design by Jon Driscoll make the evening and add the atmosphere. The costumes and set designs by Bob Crowley are a mixed-bag. Some sets are interesting while others are a sparse, and his costumes are simply there; nothing impresses. Well, nothing impresses except for one piece, but I am not sure if it is a costume or a special effect by Scott Penrose.

In the Phantom’s Aerie, the audience is treated to some of the mechanical devices for which he is renowned. One of them is a fabulous walking writing table that features a small desk on wheels that is powered by a woman’s legs with a skeleton top. I do feel sorry for the chorus person whose torso is crammed into the small desk, but the effect of her legs combined with the skeleton is simply stunning. I found myself watching that instead of what was happening between the Phantom and Gustave; it was far more interesting.

The performers are very much in earnest here, but Ramin Karimloo’s Phantom is simply too young and lovesick. It goes against the character. This is not his fault, however, it is the fault of the script which also leaves Joseph Millson nowhere to go with a Raoul who is one-dimensionally bitter and angry. Sierra Boggess’ Christine floats through the evening and never seems to be a part of the action until she is shot because of the writing. Liz Robertson’s Madam Giry is generally angry, and her accent slides from geographically untraceable French to geographically untraceable German. The only character who is truly given a round or developing character is Meg, and most of the show is about her, NOT the Phantom or Christine. Meg matures, grows sure of herself, and then hurtles into despair and madness by the end. She’s got the toughest job of the evening, and Summer Strallen gives an excellent performance throughout.

It will be interesting to see if Love Never Dies does make it to New York in the fall of 2010. Webber’s last three musicals, Whistle Down the Wind, The Beautiful Game, and The Woman in White, did not do particularly well with The Beautiful Game not going to New York at all, Whistle Down the Wind closing out of town to deservedly disastrous reviews, and The Woman in White closing after only 109 performances on Broadway. To be honest, any of these three shows had more going for them than Love Never Dies Does, and unless a great deal of work is done to correct the problems here, it looks as though Webber’s losing streak will continue.

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