Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Love Never Dies & Finian's Rainbow

I wonder if anyone really needed a sequel to The Phantom of the Opera. Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber apperently did, and he reportedly spent 20 years trying to wrestle it onto the stage. It arrived recently in London, with a Broadway edition set to open in November. True to form, the composer released an elaborate cast recording CD the week the show opened, along with web-friendly videos and a packed website.

It turns out that Love Never Dies, with lyrics by Glenn Slater, ain't bad. The listening experience on the whole isn't as grand, say, as the original musical, but there's a lot of interesting material here, and the creative team has mined it to within an inch of its life. The first show's main characters are back: the Phantom, Christine, Raoul, Madame Giry, and Meg. The only major new character is Gustave, Christine's 10-year-old son. You need not have a degree in theater to know the question of the kid's paternity provides some of the bigger moments in the show.

The action has moved from Paris to Coney Island, where the Phantom has become the famous park's dark underlord. He's summoned Christine, now a famed soprano, to perform there. Raoul is now a broke gambler, and their son is along for the ride...well, the rides. The action itself doesn't seem as thrilling physically as it was in the original show, but the psychological action is amazing. Interestingly, the Phantom, still hidden beneath that mask, is presented as the love interest, with bitter Raoul the mean-spirited villain. Where the first show was about outer beauty, this one is about inner beauty—the beauty underneath, as one lyric calls it. A nice twist and by far the show's most innovative idea.

The songs, for the most part, lack the emotional depth of those in the original musical. Still, there are some sparkling moments: "Til I Hear You Sing," the Phantom's soaring tribute to his love; "Once Upon Another Time," in which Christine and the Phantom reminisce about their long-dormant feelings (huh?); "The Beauty Underneath," which is this show's rick-n-roll moment, like the original's title song; the title song, "Love Never Dies," Christine's own tribute to love for the Phantom (huh?); and the finale, which doesn't have a formal title but which, nonetheless, is an explosively beautiful and somewhat inevitable climax. Some web reviewers claim they saw the end coming from a mile away; I admit that I didn't. I was shaken and moved by its tragic emotional wallop. This is not a happily-ever-after affair.

There are a few things that leave me scratching my head. The Phantom and Christine's love, for one; weren't they on opposite sides of Cupid's bow? Then there's the fact that the Phantom is a vicious murderer; that's gone. Oh, and then there's the fact that the Phantom, when played by Michael Crawford, was quite a bit older than Christine. After all, she did sort of see him as her missing father. Joel Schumacher's abyssmal film of the musical recast the Phantom as a younger man, one who could conceivably be a love interest for Christine. (And though Gerard Butler almost ruined the movie, he was certainly more alluring than Patrick Wilson's limp Raoul.) That same age-shifting miracle has occurred here, with the dashing Ramin Karimloo performing the Phantom with brio and much emotional swelling (of voice, of voice!). He's been performing the Phantom in the original show in London, and I like the performance here quite a bit; I just wonder why the Phantom keeps getting younger. Perhaps in the next show he'll focus his attentions on a schoolgirl?

Sierra Bogges, I should add, does a great job as Christine. She has a beautiful voice, one that sounds more...human than Sarah Brightman's ever did (or still does). Brightman's had clarity, but Boggess' has soul; she fills those big shoes better than their original owner did, I think.

As for the recording, I have a big beef. The CD set is available in two versions, one with a DVD and one without. Only the former contains the libretto, which I find inexcusable. Lloyd Webber's CD sets always contain the words; to leave it out here, for those who do not wish to own the DVD, is a cheap move. At the very least, there should be an easy link to a document on the web—but there is, in the end, a big frustrating nothing.

That said, the Love Never Dies recording is marvelous, with rich sound, a wonderful orchestra, and full, gutsy performances. Close your eyes and let your mind design the show, and you'll swear you're sitting in a theater.

The same cannot be said, unfortunately, about the new recording of the recent Broadway revival of Finian's Rainbow. One of the great and enduring musicals, Finian's Rainbow needed a strong, new production. If the CD is any indication, it still needs one. I didn't see the production, but the newly available CD falls flatter than flat—so flat that it makes me wonder if the director really understood the show he was making. Yip Harburg's lyrics are filled with wordplay and insight, and not a single pun is mined for its effect on this recording. It's as if the producers brought the cast together and said, "Sing the songs as if you're at a benefit." There's no acting, no feeling, no real awareness of the lyrics' humor and irony. Even the orchestrations are dull. For a show so very rich in so many ways, the CD is a shamefully poor representation. Though true theater lovers may toss bricks my way, if you're anxious to hear what Finian's Rainbow ought to sound like, pick up the soundtrack of 1968 movie, which was directed by Francis Ford Coppola. The music sounds vital, important, and genuine. And Fred Astaire, Petula Clark, and Tommy Steele's performances are stellar. They get the material...and deliver the pot of gold at the end of this Rainbow.

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