Review by Daz Gale
Twelve long years! That’s how long it has been since Love Never Dies was last seen in the West End, and perhaps for good reason. While The Phantom of the Opera is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most successful show still playing to packed audiences in London 37 years later, its sequel is notoriously one of his least successful, closing after 18 months. Could a one-off concert production with the London Musical Theatre Orchestra give the show its redemption or was this one show that was better off hiding in the shadows?
Based on Frederick Forsyth’s Phantom of the Opera sequel The Phantom of Manhattan, Love Never Dies is set 10 years after the events of the first story and sees the Phantom relocating to Coney Island where he is reunited with Christine Daaé and longs for the chance to hear her sing once more. However, time has moved on and she is now married with a child. However, as Lord Lloyd Webber tells us, love changes everything. Wait, wrong show. I mean love never dies, so where does that leave her feelings for the Phantom?
Since Love Never Dies finished up its West End run, a revised production opened in Australia and has since toured America. This concert marks the first time this version has been seen by British audiences and may well have rectified some of the issues that dogged it in its first iteration. As this is a concert production, it features mimimal staging with the cast acting out the story with a sparse use of props, as the vast stage is filled with the stunning London Musical Theatre Orchestra instead. While there may not be any chandeliers falling into the audience this time around, bells and whistles are not required when there is the music – and what beautiful music it really is! Continuing what is now becoming a semi-regular fixture at Theatre Royal Drury Lane of classic musicals performed alongside the London Musical theatre Orchestra, these shows add a simplified and scaled back fresh look at musicals of varying stature. Last year, they wowed audiences with concert productions of Chess, Kinky Boots and the stage premiere of new musical Treason while they took another Andrew Lloyd Webber classic to the same stage earlier this month with a stunning production of Evita. This orchestra, conducted by Freddie Tapner, have a way of bringing the best out of beautiful scores, and Love Never Dies really was no exception. It had been a long time since a West End theatre was bursting with a full orchestra playing songs about the Phantom and this was a beautiful reminder of why there really is nothing that can equate to the glorious sound they can produce.
While the songs may not be held in the same regard as some of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s other shows, including The Phantom of the Opera, there is nothing substandard about this collection of songs, with opening number ‘Til I Hear You Sing’ surely up there with his very best. With lyrics from Glenn Slater and Charles Hart, this is a consistent collection of songs with brilliant throwbacks both musically and lyrically to key moments from the shows predecessor. Gorgeously orchestrated by David Cullen and Andrew Lloyd Webber, you get the sense this score has never sounded better before. Less successful, admittedly, is the book by Ben Elton. Love Never Dies is a show that splits opinion and it is not hard to see why, with well-loved characters from Phantom making questionable choices that undo some canonical elements from that first show. As a standalone show, the writing is perfectly pleasant, but when seen as part of a series, it is hard to make sense of. In this concert production, the book carries less weight than it would have had it been fully staged, which goes some way to explain why I found myself loving this more than I had ever expected.
For this concert, the casting can only be described as dreamlike. Recruiting Norm Lewis to reprise his role as The Phantom, for the first time in this sequel, was a stroke of genius and surely a bucket list moment for many a Phantom fan. (Phan?) From the moment he leapt out of the shadows and threatened to bring the house down with ‘Til I Hear You Sing’, we knew we were in for a treat and boy, did he deliver. With inimitable stage presence and a soaring voice, Norm left my jaw on the floor repeatedly throughout. Bringing some heart to the Phantom, his performance was mesmerising and had me longing for him to tackle more roles in the West End. Having starred as Christine in Phantom, Celinde Schoenmaker was a no-brainer of a choice to reprise the role in Love Never Dies. Taking a break from her winning turn in Guys & Dolls, she effortlessly showcased her immeasurable and remarkable talents in a sweet yet more assured portrayal of Christine. Anyone who has seen Celinde perform before will know her voice is among the best there is in theatre, and at this performance she was quite possibly at her best. An absolutely perfect rendition of title number ‘Love Never Dies’ was the standout moment of the show, leading to an impromptu mid-show standing ovation. A truly stunning talent, Celinde may have found a career best with this performance.
Matthew Seadon-Young gave a great performance as the aged and now slightly disheartened Raoul de Chagny in a role that may have been eclipsed somewhat by his co-stars not that his fantastic talent ever did. Courtney Stapleton was a standout as Meg, going on the biggest character journey of the story and showcasing her versatility as a performer as the character cracks. Her star quality was on display for all to see during ‘Bathing Beauty’ with her acting and singing proving what a phenomenal talent she is. Sally Dexter may have had a relatively small part as Madame Giry but ensured she was always captivating in a brilliant part. The main cast were completed with Charles Brunton as Mr Gangle, Nic Greensheilds as Mr Squelch and Lucie-Mae Sumner as Fleck in roles that added a bit of circus and at times comedy to the proceedings, with Cian Eagle-Service proving himself to be a star of the future in an impressive performance as Christine's son Gustave. Shaun Kerrisons direction allows the music to deservedly take centre stage while still allowing the story to play out in a semi-staged fashion using winning choreography from Joanna Goodwin. Rebecca Brower’s set design transforms the stage into Coney Island, with fantastic little nods to key props from The Phantom of the Opera adorning the sides of the stage. Her costume design is exquisite, particularly when it comes to the instantly recognisable Christine, and a now golden masked Phantom. Tim Deiling ensures the affair is lit beautifully, extending to the boxes (this IS Phantom, of course) in a glorious manner.
Love Never Dies may not have been the most obvious choice of musical to revive in concert form, but fortune favours the brave and with this production, something exquisite has been created. Glossing over the divisive and occasionally baffling book to allow the beautiful score to shine was an inspired touch, and made a show I wasn’t convinced I’d completely enjoy all the more captivating. Another roaring success for the London Musical Theatre orchestra ensuring the music of the night was consistently stunning – I can’t wait to see what they have in store next.
Love Never Dies played at Theatre Royal Drury Lane for 3 performances on 21st and 22nd August. Will it ever be seen again? Never say never…
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