Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Delicious Theatre: "PAINT NEVER DRIES"

Do you recall BYE BYE BIRDIE? Of course you do. But do you recall its sequel BRING BACK BIRDIE? How about the sequels to ANNIE or THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS? Difficult, right? That's because they all failed - miserably. Whatever small charms these continuations may have contained were completely offset by the fact that, without exception, they all proved to be inferior and unnessesary in comparison to the glorious originals. Well, poodles, the long-promised sequel to Andrew Lloyd Webber's megahit PHANTOM OF THE OPERA - the biggest theatrical phenomenon of the 20th Century - is here. It's called LOVE NEVER DIES.

And we absolutely hate it.

As do many, many others. LOVE NEVER DIES has had some stinging reviews: "this poor spoof a show" (The New York Times); "misses on all fronts" (Jewish Chronicle); "lacks psychological plausibility - worse, it lacks heart" (London Evening Standard); "simply torpid. Only a radical rewrite will give it even the remotest chance of emulating its predecessor." (Variety).

What's wrong with it you ask? Well, for one thing, the story is just awful. We simply do not buy any of the changes in Raoul - or any of the other returning characters for that matter. Where oh where is the dramatic tension? All of the mystery and menance that made the phantom so delightfully memorable lo these many years have been drained away completely. (He even appears alongside all the other characters in the outrageously laughable 14 minute finale!)

And please... could someone fill us in on just HOW Christine and the Phantom could have sired little Gustave? Admittedly, it has been some time since seeing the Broadway production wonderfully staged by Hal Prince, but as we recall, Christine was drawn to the Phantom's beautiful soul - but repelled by his hideous looks. (look but don't touch.) In fact, anyone who saw Michael Crawford - or any of the subsequent broadway phantoms unmasked, would surely remember why. Our question then would have to be, are we to assume that Andrew Lloyd Webber and his collaborators would rather we recall the sexy film version of the character played by Gerard Butler (who only seemed to suffer a mild case of acne)... OR, was Christine date raped one evening after copious amounts of liquor and a few ruffies?

Discuss...

Fans of unintentional camp will probably adore the laughably anti-climatic second act finale which contains, perhaps, the longest death scene in recorded history. We won't spoil just who dies for you, but you may want to give the cd a listen before attending a performance as it may be difficult to hear the actors over the audience's giggles.

As to the score, with the exception of one - maybe two - songs, this has to be one of ALW's worst. (And given his output since the occasionally sublime SUNSET BLVD, that's a pretty hard record to top.) We enjoyed the original PHANTOM score - but this! Are we still at the opera? (More so than the first go round we fear.) We were led to believe that the show was set at Coney Island? (According to the reviews, the sets and projections are visually stunning, but from what we can hear, the score only seems to give occasional hints of being at that famed American institution.)

Much of the music is derivative of the worst of all Lloyd Webber's most recent disastrous attempts at a hit. And where oh where does Britain's favorite musical composer find these lyricists who's only gift is to write with little wit or imagination? (He even managed to make the usually talented broadway lyricist David Zippel seem like a hack in the dreadful sung-through bore THE WOMAN IN WHITE.)

Which brings us to the SUNG-THROUGH question. Would it kill Webber to write a show with actual dialogue? When will he wake up and realize that the 80s - and all that sung-through British claptrap that came out of it - are dead and gone? We've all moved on. Why can't he?

And recycling the song OUR KIND OF LOVE (A melody originally written for PHANTOM 2 but later re-titled, re-lyriced, re-used and recorded in THE BEAUTIFUL GAME) for the title song borders on insanity. Why not write something new?

For that matter, why bother to write a deflating sequel to one of the few glorious acheivements of his rather checkered career at all? Lord Lloyd Webber's choices in projects and collaborators just continues to astound us. 

For those of you sane enough to have waited for the reviews before buying the CD, here is a reprint of Ben Brantley's delightfully scathing review from the New York Times for your edification and amusement.

enjoy! - HVR

"LOVE NEVER DIES" - Same Phantom, Different Spirit
If you don’t know the first “Phantom,” you will be very confused; if you do know the first “Phantom,” you will also be very confused.

By Ben Brantley, The New York Times

LONDON — To think that all this time that poor old half-faced composer hasn’t been dead at all, just stewing in his lust for greater glory. Being the title character of The Phantom of the Opera, the most successful musical of all time, wasn’t enough for him. Oh, no. Like so many aging stars, he was determined to return — with different material and a rejuvenated body — to the scene of his first triumph. So now he’s back in the West End with a big, gaudy new show. And he might as well have a “kick me” sign pasted to his backside.

It’s hard not to feel sorry for the Phantom, who has been uncomfortably reincarnated in Love Never Dies, which opened Tuesday night at the Adelphi Theater here. Surely no stage show has ever been as widely and severely prejudged as this belated sequel from Andrew Lloyd Webber.

You see, Mr. Lloyd Webber’s original Phantom of the Opera, based on the oft-filmed 1911 novel by Gaston Leroux, has developed a stark raving fan base since it opened (and never closed) in London and on Broadway in the late 1980s. When the news got out that there was to be another show about the Phantom — to be set in early-20th-century Coney Island, no less, instead of gaslight Paris — a few of those fans took to their cybersoapboxes to cry sacrilege.

Soon theater writers (including me) were receiving e-mail messages from “Phantom”-ites lamenting the show’s rank inappropriateness. And they hadn’t even seen the darn thing. Once the musical went into previews, many were reporting in chat rooms and blogs that their darkest fears had been confirmed.

Of course, bad advance word on the Internet has sometimes proved false. (Ever hear of Avatar?) And I would be delighted to tell you that’s what happened here, especially since Love Never Dies is scheduled for Broadway this fall. But how can I, when at every opportunity Mr. Lloyd Webber’s latest sets itself up to be knocked down? Directed by the protean Jack O’Brien (Hairspray, the New York production of The Coast of Utopia), choreographed by a seriously underused Jerry Mitchell and designed by Bob Crowley (Mary Poppins, The History Boys), this poor sap of a show feels as eager to be walloped as a clown in a carnival dunking booth.

For starters, the title, with its promise of immortality, was just asking for trouble. And its breathless solemnity pervades the show’s every aspect. This production keeps such a straight face, it’s as if the slightest smile might crack it. It never acknowledges that in a musical in which no one could exactly be described as animated, it might be a mistake to introduce your leading lady in the form of an automaton in her image. Or that it’s probably not a good idea to have your hero, in his first solo, sing “the moments creep, but I can’t bear to sleep” to a melody that moves like a sloth in quicksand.

That fellow for whom time creeps is the Phantom (Ramin Karimloo), now going by the name of Mr. Y. (Is that because Y is the, uh, sequel to X?) A decade after he terrorized the Paris Opera with falling chandeliers and his deadly Punjab lasso trick, Mr. Y has set up his own little sinister sideshow, called Phantasma (no comment), in Coney Island. Though Phantasma bids fair to be the season’s must-see cultural destination, the Phantom deplores “10 years of wasting my time in smoke and noise.” (No comment.)

Under his assumed name, the Phantom engages Christine DaaĆ© (Sierra Boggess), the famous French soprano whom he once stalked and hypnotized, to appear in his show. Wearing the latest in French fashion (and a cunning little head mike), she arrives with her vicomte husband, Raoul (Joseph Millson), and her 10-year-old son, Gustave (played by a rotating cast of child actors). The advent of the glamorous Christine antagonizes the Phantom’s envious aides-de-camp, Madame Giry (Liz Robertson, doing a Frenchified Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca) and her daughter, Meg (Summer Strallen), hitherto the singing star of Phantasma.

Friends of “Phantom” will recognize these characters, as they are all (except Gustave) recycled — and in some cases, changed beyond recognition — from the earlier show. The book is credited to four writers: Mr. Lloyd Webber, the comedian Ben Elton, the novelist Frederick Forsyth and the show’s lyricist, Glenn Slater. And its plot is so elaborate and implausible it makes the libretto of Il Trovatore read like a first-grade primer. If you don’t know the first “Phantom,” you will be very confused; if you do know the first “Phantom,” you will also be very confused.

Granted, using Coney Island as the setting makes a certain sense. The Phantom of the Opera was one of the first (and best) versions of that grandiose showbiz genre, the musical as amusement park ride. (The last time I saw it, 10 years ago, it was sort of like visiting Coney Island’s venerable Cyclone roller coaster, rickety but sturdy.) So why not put on a show set in a real amusement park?

Yet the wheels that keep this particular park in motion grind torturously. There’s no equivalent to the stage-crossing gondola of “Phantom” (unless you count the mechanical glass horse that briefly appears in Act I). The thrill rides, like much of the scenery here, are digital projections (often rather pretty) on scrims. Most of the three-dimensional scenery is made up of vast Art Noveau gates and sculptures, huge creations that match Mr. Lloyd Webber’s melodies in form and weight.

While lushly orchestrated (by David Cullen with Mr. Lloyd Webber), the score is, for the most part, so slow that you have time to anticipate Mr. Slater’s next leaden rhyme. Each of the songs — which range from bathing-beauty frolics to power-chord operetta ballads — spins a single tune until it loses its tread.

Since the lead singers are required to haunt demanding, throat-taxing upper registers, it is perhaps too much to expect them to act as well. As the Phantom, Mr. Karimloo sings with all the force that artificial amplification allows. Vocally, the pretty Ms. Boggess (who starred in The Little Mermaid on Broadway) combines the more mechanical qualities of Jeanette MacDonald and Julie Andrews. Mr. Millson glares handsomely. And Ms. Strallen, as the unappreciated Meg, has a spark of something like personality.

If this show could speed up and loosen up it might be (marginally) more amusing. As it is, only a couple of sequences are campy enough to elicit “whoa, nelly” smiles. Well, one, anyway: an electric-rock number in which the Phantom, accompanied by an automaton skeleton organist, communes with little Gustave, who takes off his jacket and swings it in the air, like a miniature Van Halen member.

That’s the concluding number of the first act, and it actually has some energy. But true to self-sabotaging form, this musical follows that song with the bizarrely unexciting postscript of Mrs. Danvers, I mean Mme. Giry, tossing the kid’s jacket down a stairwell. This is matched, in the second act climax, by what feels like the longest death scene of all time. Relax, I’m not going to tell you who dies (while gasping out a reprise of the title song). Why bother, when from beginning to end, Love Never Dies is its very own spoiler.

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