Review | Theater

Review: 'Phantom' and sequel 'Love Never Dies' fun for theater geeks

Yes, I’m putting on my theater geek hat again for this post.

Over the Memorial Day Weekend, I had some theater friends over to watch the 25th anniversary production of “Phantom of the Opera” and the new production of its sequel, “Love Never Dies,” both now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Universal. We actually had to watch them out of order because of some prior commitments, and that was an interesting way to do it.

“Love Never Dies” is perhaps best watched with a stiff drink in hand. Want a drinking game? Take a shot whenever star Ben Lewis melodramatically widens his eyes. And get ready to make fun of it.

Yes, “Love Never Dies” is bad. And I tend to be really forgiving of musicals. Of course, it’s not helped by the hammy “acting” of its Phantom and Christine, Lewis and Anna O’Byrne. (Simon Gleeson’s boozy Raoul fares better.)

And it also doesn’t help that the show is ill-conceived from the start. After dramatically escaping in the finale of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s original hit, the Phantom has retreated to Coney Island with Meg and Madame Giry, where they’ve created a big sideshow production called “Phantasma.”

Ten years later, Christine Daae is a world-famous opera star, and Raoul is a drunken lout mired in gambling debts. They have a son, Gustave. Despite Meg’s attentions, the Phantom still pines for Christine, and when she comes to New York to sing for Oscar Hammerstein, he gives her an offer she can’t refuse: Sing for him instead and make enough money to get Raoul out of hock.

And despite the fact that she hated him and he tried to kill everyone she loved and imprison her for life, she still secretly pines for him and agrees to do it! This show is so messed up.

Meanwhile, Meg and Madame Giry are now feeling a bit used and tossed aside. Ya think?

There’s more to the story, but I don’t want to give it away, even though it’s pretty obvious. Let’s just say it’s even more cheesetastic.

But, wow, it looks pretty. The set is absolutely amazing. This production was filmed in Australia after revises from the original London production. (You mean the original was even worse?) It’s one huge set piece after another, many of which are never seen again. Where did they put everything? It’s gorgeous, though — dark and moody and just right for setting the tone. The costumes are equally sumptuous.

And, like anything Webber, some of the music is quite lovely. Meg Giry has a great little song called “Only for You” that serves as a second introduction to Coney Island for the audience. The first one, “Coney Island Waltz,” is pretty much irrelevant.  “Look With Your Heart” is also quite pretty. “Dear Old Friend” is a snappy, terrific story song. And Webber does a nice job of weaving in bits of the original score. The title song, though, is a snoozer.

Lewis and O’Byrne, while fantastic singers, are terrible actors. Lewis overcompensates for the mask on his face and instead of acting, merely widens his eyes a lot. O’Byrne is just a wet noodle, though her fainting swoon is epic. Sharon Millerchip as Meg also has a nice voice and is a better actress, but I couldn’t get over the fact that she looks old enough to be O’Byrne’s mother, when she should be the same age or younger.

You theater snobs can hate all you want on Webber’s original “Phantom of the Opera,” but the fact that it has played continuously for 25 years says something about the power of the story and Webber’s hit-you-in-the-gut score. And I still knew all the words (at least the ones from the original Broadway recording) as I sang along while watching.

Unlike “Love Never Dies,” which was the regular running production, this was a specially staged, three-night engagement at London’s Royal Albert Hall. Most musicals stick to concert versions in this massive space, but “Phantom” got a fully staged extravaganza with 135 actors, a huge orchestra and costumes borrowed from productions all over the world.

It starred Ramin Karimloo and Sierra Boggess, the original London stars of “Love Never Dies” who moved on to the main show. Boggess, Broadway’s “Little Mermaid,” wipes the floor with the memory of original Christine Sarah Brightman (and O’Byrne). Her voice is amazing. And Karimloo is a far more charismatic Phantom than Lewis, and a far better actor. He doesn’t just mug through the part. (Though I don’t understand the trend of casting hot young guys as the Phantom when he should be older — he was in those catacombs for years before Christine showed up.)

I haven’t seen the show in more than a decade, so it was fun to watch again. The extravagant musical gets an even more extravagant production, befitting the show that helped usher in the era of overproduced monster musicals. But those songs still stick in your head. I’m glad I watched this second so I could end the day on a higher note, so to speak.

Speaking of high notes, Brightman and other original stars came on stage after the show and performed. She was joined by three past Phantoms who were still in great voice (Anthony Warlow, John Owen-Jones and Colm Wilkinson) and one contemporary Phantom who was just plain awful (Peter Joback). Original Phantom Michael Crawford also appeared on stage, but he didn’t sing. (He was appearing in Webber’s London production of “Wizard of Oz” and high-tailed it over from that performance.)

So grab a few friends, some drinks and munchies (I suggest a cheese plate), and bring some Broadway to your living room with the two Phantom musicals. As bad as “Love Never Dies” is, it’s still fun to watch in the right frame of mind.

Eric Henrickson is a Detroit News copy editor who has also been writing about comic books, video games and anime for The News for more than 10 years. His favorite bit of geek cred so far: appearing in an online "Star Trek" fan series.