London--When Love Never Dies opened several weeks ago, the reviews indicated that with the long-gestating sequel to The Phantom of the Opera at the Adelphi, Andrew Lloyd Webber hadn't matched the level of his blockbuster predecessor. The implication was that Phantom had attained stratospheric heights, and the fall-off was near-calamitous.
Granted, the serious 1986 tuner has set longevity records and accumulated revenues that keep Lord Lloyd-Webber in quality art and, for one mouth-watering advantage, able to develop new works in his own on-the-grounds theater. But the reality isn't so clear-cut. While PoftheO had the mesmerizing "Music of the Night" sequence, Michael Crawford's shrewd performance, at least four songs with memorable (if slightly reminiscent) melodies, Maria Bjornson's magical sets and Harold Prince's eye for visual attractions (distractions?), there were--and remain--deadly-serious drawbacks to the enterprise.
To name one: the famous crashing chandelier. Every night to end act one, it falls--but disappointingly, like an autumn leaf on a windless day. When the second act begins, with the eye-popping "Masquerade" sequence, no mention is made of the destruction supposedly caused by the plummeting lighting fixture. The story proceeds as if nothing had happened, and the slip-shod story-telling is baldly revealed. "They won't care," the manufacturers seem to imply, "as long as we give 'em the scenic dazzle and keep plugging the Lloyd Webber tunes."
Judged by these compromised standards, Love Never Dies is not the metaphorical crashing chandelier it's reputed to be. Thanks to the technologically-advanced visuals concocted by set designer Bob Crowley, projection designer Jon Driscoll and special effects designer Scott Penrose, the opening segment during which turn-of-the-19th-century Coney Island comes to pulsating life begins the hoped-for festivities with a whiz-bang.
Ramin Karimloo--now the Phantom and looking ten years younger than the Phantom phantom, though, according to the plot, it's ten years later--sings with rafter-dislodging power. Moreover, he's drop-dead handsome, despite the trimmed mask he wears to hide the left side of his face. (Possible spoiler: He removes the mask during the show.) Sierra Boggess, Disney's erstwhile little mermaid and all but drowning in that hare-brained opus, has the beauty of a cameo on a silk ribbon and sings the title tune breath-takingly--building it from a deliberately tentative start to a triumphant conclusion. The ovation she receives when, in a stunning Crowley gown, she lets go of the final silvery note, is deserved. And there are slick, sleek supporting performances from Liz Robertson as a Mrs. Danvers-like Madame Giry and Summer Strallen as her ambitious performing daughter, Meg.
Speaking of the title aria, it and only two other numbers--the quartet "Dear Old Friend," delivered with amusingly dripping insincerity, and "Devil Take the Hindmost," walloped across the footlights by the Phantom and Christine Daaé's now alcoholic husband Raoul (Joseph Millson), have the Lloyd Webber spark or possess any wit that lyricist Glenn Slater musters. Most of the other songs--every one of the ballads, unfortunately--are generic Lloyd Webber, who once again indulges his standard AABAAB rhyme-scheme through the many expository patches. And not to put too fine a point on it, even "Love Never Dies" initially echoes Adolph Deutsch's "Theme From The Apartment."
Saving the worst for last: The libretto--worked on by Lloyd Webber, Ben Elton (apparently the tale told was his notion), Slater and Frederick Forsyth--is no great shakes. Having moved his operation from the Paris Opera House (as imagined by Gaston Leroux) to Coney Island (as imagined by the above-mentioned quadrumvirate), the Phantom has hired his beloved Christine to sing for him one last time at a special evening. Having no idea who her employer is, she arrives with nastily bibulous husband and son Gustave (Charlie Manton at the performance I saw, who alternates with six other youngsters). Out of sorts with this revoltin' development, Madame Giry and daughter plot to undo Christine's appearance, Meanwhile, the Phantom devises a scheme to win his beloved soprano from her errant hubby and also enthrall young Gustave.
Much of this is palatable--at the very least serves as a peg on which to hang those amazing effects--and is made even more acceptable by Jack O'Brien's legerdemain direction. (Jerry Mitchell is billed as the choreographer, but he had little to do, since Lloyd Webber has never been big on dancing in his projects.) But the last fifteen minutes which unfold on a pier of some sort--from which the now desperate Meg likes to swim--are so over-the-top and out-of-synch with what's preceded them that they alone may preclude the expensive production from traveling to Manhattan any time soon.
It's here that Lloyd Webber, so regularly drawn to the opera for his sung-through, or mostly-sung-through, pieces, veers too close to the inanities of the worst opera dramaturgy. Yes, this is where Love Never Dies almost does.