One of the most ravishing visual and theatrical feasts to be seen on our stages for some time.

The original London production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s sequel to his record-breaking Phantom of the Opera garnered mixed reviews a year or so ago and, despite my general enjoyment of the subsequent recording, I have to admit I could understand that there were problems with the storyline and character development. It turns out that former MTC artistic director Simon Philips saw the show and, after frank discussions with Lloyd Webber, was given carte blanche to create his own staging. It is that production which is enjoying a 12-week run at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre. Yes, there are still problems with the book, but what a remarkable spectacle!

This must be one of the most ravishing visual and theatrical feasts to be seen on any of our stages for quite some time. Philips and his superb design team (Gabriela Tylesova: set and costumes, Nick Schlieper: lighting) have triumphed over the hi-tech London version with what is in reality a remarkably old-fashioned concept – good old smoke and mirrors.  Bits of set that fly, a revolve, loads of sequins, glitter and light bulbs… All so seamlessly choreographed and sensitively pressed into service it feels at times like the Ziegfeld Follies reborn for the 21st century. If at times the sound design doesn’t quite match this in imagination or subtlety (a few too many lines get lost) that is a minor quibble in an evening that is visually ten out of ten.

Those familiar with Phantom will know that at the end of the former show the twisted genius mysteriously disappears leaving our heroine, Christine Daaé, to marry her dashing Vicomte, Raoul.  Love Never Dies moves us forward by ten years to fin-de-siècle New York, where the Phantom now resides under the pseudonym Mr Y, creator and proprietor of Phantasma, an attraction on Coney Island.

We subsequently gather that he was smuggled out of France by Madame Giry and her daughter Meg, who helped him start his new life but, despite Giry’s hopes that he will “notice” her daughter, the Phantom longs only to hear Christine sing for him once more.  To that end he has lured Christine and her somewhat estranged husband to New York with a contract which they hope will earn the money to pay off Raoul’s gambling debts. Christine now has a ten-year-old son, Gustave, and it comes as no surprise to learn that he is the Phantom’s own child, conceived in a (hard to recall) moment of passion late in the second half of the previous show.

This is one of several problems that still bedevil the script, leading to a frustrating lack of dramatic tension. The Phantom’s appearance before the overture robs us of any questions we may have as to the identity of the mysterious impresario or his motives – likewise his immediate emergence in Christine’s room. The characters of Giry and Meg have been cut, alas, and are now underwritten, making it hard to understand or care about Meg’s unhinged behaviour at the denouement. We have never seen her throwing herself at the Phantom, or any other men for that matter, and so her ultimate rejection lacks motivation. What is surprising is that, despite these dramaturgical flaws, the show manages to hold our interest through a combination of fine performances, well-crafted musical storytelling and sheer theatrical chutzpah.

What about the music, then? Lloyd Webber has come up with his grandest and most elegant score since Sunset Boulevard. It’s a romantic confection shot through with darkness, that cleverly quotes Phantom just enough to remind us of key moments in the past. If he occasionally appears to quote from his other works (Meg’s wistful motif seems very close to A Memory Of A Happy Moment from Aspects of Love), well, that’s not inappropriate. The orchestrations are very nice indeed and conductor Simon Holt’s shaping of the music was excellent, his orchestra on fine form with some lovely solo violin work from Adrian Bendt. The lyrics range from memorable to functional with a few lapses into Mills and Boon territory, but then the work really is a modern operetta in both style and substance.

Ben Lewis is a man with considerable presence who conveys the Phantom’s physical awkwardness and reserve well, although a little more passion and a touch more of the creative showman at times wouldn’t come amiss.  He sings the demandingly high central role extremely well, however, and conveys a great deal through his music.  Anna O’Byrne looks ravishing – every inch the Diva – and she handles the operatic tessitura of the role with ease. Her relationships with her husband, “lover” and especially her son are portrayed with heartfelt tenderness.

Perhaps the finest performance of the night comes from Simon Gleeson in the unappetising role of Raoul. His outstanding, evenly produced voice, expressive physicality and fine vocal acting provide a masterclass in understatement and an object lesson in how to make a three dimensional character out of modest material.

Almost matching him in dramatic deftness is Sharon Millerchip, who makes the potentially annoying Meg a most sympathetic and winning character. One can’t help wishing she had a fuller relationship to explore with either her mother or her boss. Millerchip is also a most engaging dancer, just one of a cast superbly equipped to bring Graeme Murphy’s first-rate choreography to life.

The production has been filmed in Melbourne (supposedly as part of a marketing exercise to sell it to Broadway) and on this showing the ensuing DVD will make an excellent investment for anyone who misses out on the remaining Sydney performances. A magical night at the theatre.

Love Never Dies is playing at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre.

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