The cast of Love Never Dies | Regent Theatre (Pic: Jeff Busby)

“Ten long years,” the Phantom bemoans, “living a mere facade of life. Ten long years, wasting my time with smoke and noise.”

The frustration is palpable. Not of the opera ghoul’s lost love, necessarily, but of the puppet-master of global Phantom Enterprises. It’s been 25 years, in fact, since Andrew Lloyd Webber put his stupidly successful rock opera there, inside our minds. After much smoke and noise, and barely a hit, since, the sequel nobody asked for, and social media groups militantly campaigned against, is here — Love, Sir Webber hastens to add, Never Dies.

The tortured genius (in the mask, now) just won’t quit. Heartbreak didn’t kill him in his Paris Opera House lair as he set his muse Christine free, nor rickets apparently in the years since. In fact, he crossed the Atlantic to New York and the bright lights of Coney Island, transforming himself into a self-styled impresario. Now he’s hatched an implausible plot to lure his love, now a mother and married to that sensible Raoul, to the fairground to again capture her heart.

“In my mind I hear melodies pure and unearthly, but I find I can’t give them a voice without you,” the masked one seethes in the opening scene. He is grotesquely mortal now, stripped of the alchemy, the hypnotic allure, of the original.

Much like this sequel.

The tune, ‘Till I Hear You Sing — a genuinely stirring show-stopper — comes at the very start of the show (part of the significant revisions Webber and his Australian collaborators have made to the widely-panned London production) and is, rather ominously, endlessly echoed but never matched for the next two and a half hours. You can’t build a show on one great song. Or the memories of an old fantastical piece of musical theatre.

Critics will use Love Never Dies as the blunt instrument to beat Webber over the head for crimes against the stage (and the Victorian government for topping up his fortune to bring the show Broadway rejected to Melbourne). They’ll say it’s an exercise in commercial greed (though the multi-billionaire hardly needs the cash). They’ll point to the banal lyrics (arguably no worse than any other show he’s penned); the implausible plot (even by musical theatre standards?); the gaudy celebration of sheer style over substance (nothing but a spectacle under director Simon Phillips and designer Gabriela Tylesova). And they’ll be right.

But he did write it. Many people will come to see it. Most will leave happy enough. It showcases a host of quite exceptional Australian talent. It is, frankly, not awful. Nothing to eulogise, perhaps, but nothing to demonise either. Let’s all remain calm.

Ben Lewis took around five minutes on opening night to become a star. On paper he is miscast: far too young (the years have been kind to the Phantom) with barely a lead role on the resume. But his prodigious ‘Till I Hear You Sing was pulsating; his portrayal of torment the most convincing aspect of most scenes.

And as he rises to the rafters the sparkling vision of Tylesova — perhaps the other star of this show — spills out, earning an applause of its own. A rickety rollercoaster laps the stage, colourfully-costumed circus freaks emerge, energetically choreographed by Graeme Murphy no less, and Webber’s rousing and richly orchestrated Coney Island Waltz, tightly performed under the baton of musical director Guy Simpson, paints a vivid picture of a bygone era of entertainment.

As Christine, Anna O’Byrne returns to the role and, as she did in the original, handles the musically demanding soprano parts well. Her big number (and perhaps the only other memorable tune) Love Never Dies is crisp and assured. Simon Gleeson is Raoul, a more challengingly unsympathetic role than the original, Sharon Millerchip also returns as Meg, now a thoroughly accomplished stage performer, and Maria Mercedes is the wily Madame Giry. Rudely talented Kurtis Papadinis had the honour of playing Christine’s son on opening night (five boys share the role).

All do their best to flesh out roles that only really manage to be whole with the context of the original. Don’t bother coming if you aren’t one of the 5 million Australians who saw Phantom. This is an addendum, however unsatisfying, for them; nothing more than a visual spectacle for anyone else.

After the exciting opening the carriages quickly run off the rails. Regular musical cues to the original Phantom score only serve to underline how much more entrancing it was; one number, act one closer The Beauty Underneath, attempts a synthesised timewarp to the 1980s that jars in an otherwise inoffensive if rarely inspiring score. As for the narrative, from a witless book co-written by comedian Ben Elton (and extensively revised since), its soapy revelations suck much of the romance from the rewound love triangle.

What Melbourne audiences will experience is a production significantly better than the West End. A beaming Webber took to the stage for his curtain call on Saturday and declared to the star-studded audience: “I wasn’t really happy with this in London and here it is exactly as I wanted it to be.” The creative ingenuity of this Australian team deserved its enthusiastic standing ovation. And the tortured composer? There’s undoubtably more smoke and noise to come.

Phans will lap this up. And there’s plenty of them to ensure a long and successful run.

The details: Love Never Dies plays the Regent Theatre. Tickets through Ticketmaster. The show is expected to tour to Sydney next year.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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