I’m going to come clean. I’ve never seen Phantom of the Opera on stage. Of course, the phenomenon hasn’t completely passed me by – I have a couple of different cast recordings and I’ve seen the movie a few times – but as far as the stage experience goes, Love Never Dies, in its Sydney opening night on January 12, was my first live introduction to the canon.
And it was a spectacular one. If you’ve never experienced the iconic giant chandelier, or even if you have, you won’t miss it when faced with the staggering success that is Gabriela Tylesova’s set and costume design; Tylesova’s work is the star of the show. Lush and darkly romantic, we are transported to early twentieth century Coney Island and its underground, where the Phantom, known as Mr. Y, now resides. The Australian, all-new production of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Love Never Dies triumphs in the power of its creative and production team. The night-time lights up like the indulgent carnival that Coney Island certainly was in its heyday, but what’s surprising is exactly how effective the set design – complete with roller coaster and carousel – manages to be; this is a beautifully epic tale down to the last detail.
It’s been ten years since Christine Daae’s (Anna O’Byrne) last run-in with the Phantom (Ben Lewis). She’s married now to Raoul (Simon Gleeson), even if the marriage isn’t an entirely happy one, burdened with Raoul’s gambling debts – and they share their lives with young son Gustave (played on opening night by Jack Lyall), who has an uncanny knack for music. Lured by an invitation to sing for Hammerstein himself, the now world-renowned diva Christine brings her family to New York City (a darker shadow perhaps of the other New York currently on Sydney’s stages in Annie) in an explosion of paparazzi flashbulbs.
Vocally, the cast doesn’t disappoint for a moment. Lewis’ masterful range doesn’t fail to impress from the opening number (‘’Til I Hear You Sing’), and my personal highlight of the night was his second act duet with Gleeson’s Raoul, ‘Devil Take the Hindmost.’ O’Byrne’s performance during the title song is the one that will be impossible to forget, while Sharon Millerchip’s Meg Giry almost steals the entire show with Meg’s bouncy revelry of a Coney Island number, ‘Bathing Beauty’. With a strong ensemble that shines both vocally and in choreography by Graeme Murphy, this is a collectively formidably work of performance.
The story is something of a classic, exploring the enduring power of love, and the lengths those in love will go to follow it; family too, and where our loyalties lie. Every character has their conflict, even Madame (Maria Mercedes) and Meg Giry (indeed, Meg’s presence in the story, due in no small part to Millerchip’s effervescence and polish, is like a ray of sunlight in the dark and moody show, until she too is enveloped too far in this gothic tale of love and loss). Simon Phillips (August: Osage County, Priscilla Queen of the Desert), a rightfully celebrated director, has managed to rein the classic tale and its sprawling score into a tight and well-paced production. Even the technical difficulties on opening night with a curtain and some flickering set lights in Christine’s dressing room didn’t detract from the magic, because the staging of this show actually does create magic; the staging makes live musical theatre an event all over again.