Judge Jim Thomas wonders if love plays in Peoria.
Love Never Dies.
The Phantom of the Opera burst onto the stage in 1986, a sumptuous banquet of lush music and lavish spectacle. It made an international star out of Michael Crawford, and went on to be the longest-running show on Broadway. After an inordinate delay (due primarily to a series of lawsuits accusing Weber of plagiarism), a tepid film version hit the screens in 2004. At length, Weber decided to return to his greatest success and work on a sequel. In 2010, it opened in London to decidedly mixed reviews. Undaunted, Weber packed up and went down under; a new production, boasting an updated book, new direction and design, and a new cast, opened in Australia in May 2011, receiving…somewhat better reviews. As of this writing, there's still no word as to if or when the sequel will arrive on Broadway.
The production was filmed in October, and thus Universal now brings before us Love Never Dies (Blu-ray).
Facts of the Case
At the end of The Phantom of the Opera, the beautiful singer Christine Daaé left to marry Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny, while the Phantom, surrounded by an angry mob in the catacombs beneath the Paris Opera House, disappeared into thin air.
Ten years later, things aren't going so well in the de Chagny home. Christine (Anna O'Byrne) has retired after a strong career, but Raoul (Simon Gleeson) has gambled away the family fortune, and to keep the creditors at bay, the couple, along with their ten-year-old son Gustave has traveled to New York to perform for Oscar Hammerstein (Senior, not Junior; Senior built theater halls). When they arrive, someone else is offering even more money to hear Christine sing—Mr. Y, the mysterious owner of Phantasma, a theater hall on Coney Island, whose headline performer is Meg Giry (Sharon Millerchip), a friend of Christine's from the Paris Opera house.
What Christine and Raoul don't know is that Mr. Y is none other than the Phantom (Ben Lewis), spirited away from Paris by Madame Giry (Maria Mercedes) and her daughter Meg. The Phantom wants Christine back, and is willing to make a devil's bargain with Raoul to make it happen.
There are spoilers—or whatever.
One-word review: Meh.
I'm not a huge Andrew Lloyd Weber fan (more of a Sondheim man), but I can appreciate The Phantom of the Opera's sweeping, haunting score, capped by Michael Crawford's star-making performance. This score has some nice passages here and there, but overall, most of the songs aren't particularly memorable, while the title song is downright boring. The notable exceptions are the sweeping "'Til I Hear You Sing Once More," easily the highlight of the entire show, and the tender "Look With Your Heart." As is his wont, Weber plays around with different styles; the carnival setting of Coney Island lends itself well to such an endeavor. Love Never Dies' score cannot hope to match the original, a fact made painfully clear every time a few bars of the original score are dropped in for effect.
But the bigger problem is the story, which plays out like bad fan-fiction. GUSTAVE IS TEN YEARS OLD CHRISTINE LEFT THE PHANTOM TEN YEARS AGO OMIGOD DO YOU THINK GUSTAVE IS THE PHANTOM'S SON?? Of course he is, and the revelation is as anticlimactic as it could possibly be, never mind that there is nothing in The Phantom of the Opera that even suggests that Christine and the Phantom consummated their love. The original production posited that Christine and the Phantom conceived Gustave the night before her wedding to Raoul, a scenario that paints all the characters in a bad light. The Australian production wisely drops that little chestnut, but you have to accept an awful lot to believe that these two actually hooked up. The Phantom, once a being of magic, menace, and madness, is here just an obsessed businessman, so that the melodramatic grandeur of the love triangle is reduced to little more than a tawdry squabble, with a hapless Christine stuck in the middle, never realizing that she's basically the prize in a bar bet.
The stage has a wonderful design. The grotesque assemblage of carnival freaks makes a fitting home for the Phantom; unfortunately, you never really get a good look at it. Director Brett Sullivan, who directed the film (Simon Phillips directed the stage production), decided to shoot and edit the film to make it look more like a film than a stage show; there is no intermission between acts, and for the most past there is no audience. In addition, many entrances and exits are edited out to speed up the runtime (the play typically runs about 150 minutes, including intermission; the film clocks in at a brisk 121 minutes). The problem with this approach is that Sullivan shoots the film primarily in medium and close shots; we rarely see the stage in its entirety. The problem is compounded by the 2.38:1 aspect ratio (cropped to 2.35:1 on disc), which makes it even more difficult to see all of the stage. Sullivan has trouble framing effectively; too often characters' heads get cut off. It wasn't until I viewed some online stills that I could see that the grand entrance to Phantasma features a highly stylized rendition of the Phantom's mask.
Technically, Love Never Dies (Blu-ray) is pretty good. I was unable to determine the codec used, but the transfer is good, if not great. There is a fair amount of black crush, but at the same time, when lighted properly, the details are surprisingly shot. I suspect that part of the problem is that the lighting was optimized for the stage, not film. The DTS-HD audio was recorded during performance; the vocals are solid, though at times the orchestra lacks depth. The only extra is a relatively brief making-of featurette that is basically a collage of interviews with the principal players. There's very little about the genesis of the story. It's slight, but still an entertaining addition, particularly when the leads talk about their character's arcs between the original and the sequel.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Whatever failings Love Never Dies may have, acting isn't one of them. Ben Lewis may not quite have the presence of Michael Crawford, but his voice is magnificent, soaring. Anna O'Byrne can't quite sell the title song, but that is more the fault of the song than her. In one of the more thankless roles you're likely to encounter, Simon Gleeson lets us see hints of the dashing young suitor who captured Christine's heart so long ago. The cast almost manages to sell the weak story, but honestly, Meryl Streep and Daniel Day-Lewis probably couldn't make the ending work.
If you are a full-blown Phan, the continuing story of the Phantom and Christine may engage you, but it's just as likely to enrage you. Remember how I said that "'Til I Hear You Sing Once More" was the best song on the show? Well, it's also the very first song. The Phantom had it right back in 1986: The music of the night is well and truly over.
Despite the bravura work of the cast, the producers would have been better served heeding a different adage: Leave well enough alone.
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