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Shai Baitel

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Passion Never Dies. Love Does.

Posted: 10/08/10 04:48 PM ET

Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber delayed the opening of the sequel to his enormously successful musical Phantom of the Opera. While it might be a mere speculation, there must have been other reasons than those given to the media. Sir Andrew will have had second thoughts about the staging of Love Never Dies, the twisted plot of which is set years after the end of the original Phantom. The sequel follows Christine Daaé after her arrival in New York where she was invited to perform a new musical piece in Coney Island. The composer behind that piece would turn out to be no other than the Phantom. Sir Andrew might have asked himself: Does this musical deserve to be produced? If he did ask, he gave a wrong answer.

Much efforts and money were invested in this colorful and technologically advanced production at the Adelphi Theatre in London's West End. Yet, even an amateur musical enthusiast is hard-pressed to understand what justified the show. It's not the plot. It's not the music. These two ingredients that make or break a musical are missing. And this is tragic -- even more tragic than the Phantom's fate.

Webber tried maybe too hard to duplicate the unprecedented nature of the original Phantom, and to provide the millions of 'fan-toms' all over the world a reason to dig deep into their pockets for another round of 'funtom.' A sequence of loud, yelling numbers, with too many set requisites and a forced plot makes 'Love' a boring and even tiring musical experience.

One good word, however: The visual effects -- especially the projections -- are impressive. The screening-over fog is beautiful as well even though the use of smoke was rather generous as if there were leftovers from the original Phantom. This, at least would explain why every few minutes fog is wafting onto the stage, mostly without obvious dramatic need. Or was it an attempt to sedate the audience? But never underestimate your audience. True Phantom followers will not accept any excuse from Webber. They will find that his later works embarrass his earlier ones. The love for the original Phantom and its magical story certainly dies a dark and slow death.

A few blocks over from the Adelphi, the light of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's immortal story of Passion shines brightly at the Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden. In an unforgettable theater event, Passion's cast knows how to deliver a powerful experience to theater lovers. Captain Giorgio Bachetti is relocated to an Italian outpost, leaving behind his beloved Clara. Subsequently the audience witnesses the shattering and inconceivable consequences after meeting his officer's cousin, Fosca.

Both Scarlett Strallen, as Clara, and David Thaxton, as Giorgio, are very convincing in their display of devotion and love from afar. Thaxton has presence and his performance of the demanding role is proves to be strong throughout the show. At times he carries it all alone on his shoulders. But it is inevitable to conclude that the show belongs to Elena Roger. Her performance is as powerful as the role that she plays. She is mesmerizing, not less. How could anyone possibly take one's eyes off her while she is on stage?

In 'I read' Fosca sings about "[...] a flower which offers delicious nectar at the top and bitter poison underneath -- the butterfly that stays too long and drinks too deep is doomed to die.' And so Fosca makes us drink from this nectar, until the captivated viewers, too, die with her at the end. Roger, as Fosca, is not only making Giorgio but the whole audience obsessed with her.

It is her strong theatrical presence which takes the entire audience on a neurotic journey, with her illness, with her irritating pathetic, yet dominant personality. Her blend of passion and mischief is striking.

All this is complemented by a simple yet smart design of the stage. Bright light at times shows the beautiful faces of Giorgio and Clara, but it also captures the sight of Fosca's illness, her already pale face, and her borderline personality. The beautiful authentic paintings on the wall of the room at headquarters are only the excuse for the cracks on them -- that more than anything resemble the fractures in Giorgio's and Clara's love, their own lives -- but more dramatically the fragile, if not broken Fosca.

Passion is palpable in this performance and the emotional attachment is achieved through the stellar acting of the cast. Sondheim's melancholic lines are piercingly precise.

Fosca may die at the end, and so might the audiences, but the passion remains alive. And so it is that Sondheim's Passion never dies, but Sir Andrew's Phantom Love, regrettably, does.