Watch Me Entertain Myself!

Sacha Guitry once said, "You can pretend to be serious, but you can't pretend to be witty." Oh yes, I'm the great pretender.
(pilot episode: 20 January 2004)

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Phantom Never Dies

When I first heard of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom Of The Opera, I was with my fellow college theater mates, and someone had bought the original cast recording to our backstage. It was in a double cassette bought from the U.S.; at that time, there were no digital downloads nor the Internet. At that time, there was a mini-competition between Phantom and another worldwide musical hit, Les Miserables. Most of my theater mates loved the musical based on Victor Hugo’s classic; I, however, feel deeply enthralled by the mysterious figure of the Phantom. I related to his tale of unrequited love and being misunderstood by everyone. I guess when you’re young and confused and terrified at the dawning sexual and romantic feelings towards your fellow men, you can immediately identify with the Phantom’s tragic yet talented character.

Many years and musicals later, I heard of the worldwide screening of The Phantom Of The Opera At the Royal Albert Hall in movie theaters. For one reason or another I ended up not watching it on the big screen. So I was pleasantly surprised when I saw the DVD for sale. And whoa! What’s this? Its companion in the boxed set was a DVD of another Webber musical, Love Never Dies, billed as the sequel to Phantom. To be honest, it was the first time I heard of the sequel, so I snapped up the boxed set immediately.

Phantom is astounding, both visually and musically (the 5.1 surround sound puts you in the middle of the orchestra). Because the production was mounted at the Royal Albert Hall, they had to re-adjust the production design. One of the biggest concession was the loss of the falling chandelier; in its place, they made do with a light fixture that bursts with fireworks.

Another huge change was the huge LED screen that served as backdrop. It’s impressive yet at the same time a letdown; yes, the over-all effect can be magnificent (see “Masquerade”), but it also feels like a cop-out. But given the context of the over-all production (it only had 3 performances in the venue), I can justify the use of the screen.

The 25th Anniversary performance is not just a concert staging of the songs; instead, it was a full-blown production, lavish and lush in its operatic scale.

But the unexpected pleasure for me was in the second DVD.

Gibbs, the Fabcasters’ resident Mr.-“Are you into chether?” Culture and Arts Expert, felt that the sequel is “visually lavish, but musically second-rate” compared to the mother musical. It was poorly received a when it first previewed. Eventually its West End run was cut short, and its Broadway debut cancelled. The original plan of opening in Shanghai was scrapped; instead, it was moved to Australia.

So it was with reduced expectations that I watched the musical. I ended up pleasantly surprised.

Yes, on the whole the music of Love is more uneven than Phantom. A lot of the former’s melodies are not as quickly catchy as the latter’s “Think Of Me,” “All I Ask Of You,” and the title track. The more solid songs are fewer and far in between. The start of the musical felt clunky. The musical opens in fits and starts, until the melody of the first song, “‘Til I Hear You Sing” asserts itself. And “The Coney Island Waltz” is supposed to establish the setting—Coney Island, 1905, a glittering and glorious carnival that masks a mysterious and menacing underbelly. The song has a melancholy undertone, but the arrangement could have been more grandiose and cheerful when the whole carnival is revealed. (Or maybe it’s just me quibbling about the sound design. How come there were no natural carnival sounds to augment the action onstage? Or was that taken out for the purpose of the movie?)

But this I have to say with Webber’s melodies and arrangements: when it works, it soars. And in the hands of a talented Australian cast, some of the songs approach the grandeur of the production’s visuals.

Ah, the production design! As the show went on, the sets became more and more intriguing. But I was really impressed in the scene when the Phantom shows Christine Daae’s son Gustave his world. The towering, twirling prisms acted as both cruel mirrors that reflected the freakiness of the Phantom’s world, and as prisons that contained actual freaks. (The child actor playing Gustave had a pristine voice, but his performance is sadly wooden.)

But the climax of the musical is also the showstopper title song, and here, I gave a small gasp when the set was revealed. The whole proscenium and backdrop were dressed like a peacock’s feathers in full display, with Christine standing in the middle. No complicated set changes, no elaborate set movements. And yet the visual impact is dazzling. 

Had the musical displayed more wit and not taken itself too seriously, then truly Love Never Dies, instead of suffering an early cancellation.

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