I have loved musical theatre all my life, and have been going to shows for as long as I can remember. And if you asked me to name the shows that define my "really obsessive theatre freak" days, Phantom of the Opera certainly ranks among the top two or three. I wouldn't list it as my favourite show, but it certainly sparked a love of spectacle in theatre (who can forget that chandelier rising from the stage as the overture soared?) and introduced me to some performers who remain favourites to this day, and the show remains a sentimental favourite even if I have seen many others since that I can objectively say were "better" shows. Love him or loathe him (and there are many people on both ends of that spectrum), the impact that Andrew Lloyd Webber has had on the musical theatre of the late 20th century cannot be denied, and while he and his shows are not without their faults, I have great affection for both, and gratitude for the hours of enjoyment his music has given me. One of my favourite evenings, ever, was the night PetDoc, Noise, Serdic and I went to Andrew Lloyd Webber's 60th birthday celebration concert in Hyde Park. Standing in a crowd of 30,000 people singing Any Dream Will Do (from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat) and then Happy Birthday to the man himself ... it was a really special night.
So when PetDoc emailed and asked if I wanted to get tickets to the new sequel to Phantom that ALW has just opened in London, what could I say but "of course!" We figured it was an opportunity we couldn't pass up -- a little bit of theatre history and we wanted to be part of it.
The show was, honestly, almost exactly what I was expecting. Definitely bombastic and over the top in places (just like Phantom!) but also with moments of great beauty and thrilling music. I was a bit disappointed in the actor playing the Phantom during the first act, as he seemed to be straining for the high notes and having trouble with the props, but when I finally broke down and bought a program at intermission (don't even get me started on having to pay 3 pounds to see a cast list!) we discovered that we were actually seeing an understudy, which explained a lot. As the show has only been open a month, this was probably his first (or among his first at any rate) performance in what is a challenging role both physically and vocally, so instead I say bravo to him. We also saw an understudy for Madame Giry, and she was having prop issues as well (maybe the props are the issue?), but all in all the performances were very good.
I did have a couple of issues with characterization, especially compared to the original Phantom. My inner feminist hated the dramatic climax, where the Phantom and Raoul decide between themselves who will "get" Christine, and don't even bother to tell her. I felt like standing up and shouting at the stage "How about you let her choose, m'kay?" Christine is not exactly a paragon of 21st century feminist thinking in Phantom, either, but she does take action in the final scene and make her choice, and I was really irritated by the removal of even that little bit of autonomy for her.
A bigger issue for me was the characterization of the Phantom himself. In the original, he is a monster, haunted, tortured, and dangerous, redeemed only by his love for Christine and his music. He kills on a whim, he kidnaps and threatens, he extorts money from the opera house. Yes, you are supposed to feel sorry for him, and reflect on the society that has made him what he is, but you are also supposed to fear him, and believe him capable of great cruelty and evil. Every actor I have seen play the Phantom has brought that out in voice and, more importantly, in movement and body language. His is a twisted soul, and his body reflects that. There was none of that in this Phantom. Even allowing for the fact that we were seeing an understudy in the role, I think the problem is in the conception and production, more than in the performance. This Phantom walks and talks like an ordinary gentleman, albeit one who wears a mask. He goes out and about in Coney Island, he receives visitors freely in his lair, and you don't believe he would be capable of killing anything more than a fly. Even when the mask comes off and his deformity is revealed, most of the characters show nothing more than mild discomfort, if they notice at all. I don't know if this was an attempt to make the show lighter in tone than the original (there are several "vaudeville" type numbers and things like that) but it didn't work for me. I'm also not sure why they had to turn Raoul into a raging asshole, but that's a minor point.
All in all, though, what the show really did was make me wish I was seeing Phantom again instead. And I thought I was done seeing Phantom, as I saw it many, many times during my aforementioned theatre freak days. But that residual affection is still there, and there are a couple of times during Love Never Dies where musical themes from Phantom surface, and that music is so familiar to me. It moved something deep inside me that of course the music from Love Never Dies, being unfamiliar to me and not loaded with so much emotional baggage from a different time in my life, would not.
So, to sum up, worth seeing, and an enjoyable evening at the theatre. Nothing like the original, though.