Hopes run high for ‘Phantom of Opera’ sequel

By Jill Lawless

LONDON — There’s no chandelier. But there is a roller coaster — literal and, producers hope, emotional.

Audiences need to be thrilled by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Love Never Dies,” sequel to “Phantom of the Opera,” the show that bills itself as the most successful piece of entertainment of all time. Still running in London 24 years after it opened, it’s also the longest- running show in Broadway history. Producers say it has been seen by more than 100 million people and staged in 25 countries.

So hopes and fears both are running high for the follow up, which began previews Feb. 22 and opens March 9 at London’s Adelphi Theatre. Some praise Lloyd Webber’s bravery in trying to best his biggest success, especially amid an economic downturn. Others think he’s crazy. Even the creative team has occasional doubts.

“I’m not sleeping all that well,” said the show’s American director, Jack O’Brien — although the twinkle in his eye belies the statement.

“The investment in ‘Phantom’ runs deep into people’s imaginations and into their history. People fell in love in the balcony. People are taking their children, conceived during the run.”

Lloyd Webber has been recovering from prostate cancer while preparing for the London run.

“Phantom” found a new formula for commercial dynamite — a mix of insinuating melodies, lush romanticism and a frisson of horror. It is a beauty-and-the beast potboiler about a young opera singer, Christine Daae, who attracts the brooding attention of the Phantom, a disfigured genius haunting the cellars of the Paris Opera.

“Love Never Dies” takes up the story 10 years on, after the Phantom — Canadian actor Ramin Karimloo — has fled to the roller-coaster rides and amusement arcades of New York’s Coney Island, a place of bright lights and dark desires. Starting out as a sideshow freak, he rises to control the entire complex, but still pines for Christine (Sierra Boggess, formerly Broadway’s “Little Mermaid”), now married to his rival, Raoul, and mother to a 10-year-old son.

“Phantom” owed its success to catchy, romantic ballads such as “The Music of the Night” and “All I Ask of You,” but also to the set and costumes designed by Maria Bjornson — the lush, Gothic, candlelit world, the underground gondola ride, that famous crashing chandelier.

Bjornson died in 2002, and “Love Never Dies” is designed Bob Crowley, an acclaimed Irish designer who has worked with Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre, in the West End and on Broadway, where the show is scheduled to open in November. (It opens in Australia in 2011.)

“I feel we have a lot to live up to, particularly in my own sphere, because Maria’s work was so exquisite,” said Crowley amid rehearsals at the Adelphi. “If you go and see it today, it looks as good as it did 20-odd years ago. The zeitgeist changes so quickly these days, things look aged and dated, whereas that doesn’t. It looks beautiful.”

“Love Never Dies” has a very different setting — 20th rather than 19th century, American rather than European — and a design vocabulary that incorporates elements of cinema as well as the excitement of electricity and the automobile.

“This has a much more wide, open-lens feel about it,” said Crowley. “The first one was all by candlelight. This was the birth of the electric bulb. That’s all part of what I put on stage.”

Crowley, a five-time Tony Award winner, was inspired by the glory days of Coney Island. He first visited the park 15 years ago and found it “tawdry and broken-down and sad and dilapidated and a bit crass.” A century ago, however, it was a wonder: Las Vegas and Disneyland rolled into one.

“Like seeing ‘Avatar’ for the first time — completely cutting-edge, and changing the way people saw entertainment,” Crowley said. “It must have looked like Atlantis, approaching it from the sea.”

Crowley says he drew on archival images of the theme park, but added a slightly surreal twist. The show is set in a fairground attraction created by the Phantom called Phantasma — “a projection of his slightly twisted genius.”

“Just as he took the [Opera] Garnier and turned it into a place of threat and horror, here he’s taken a theme park and made it his own world, which can either be threatening or beautiful,” Crowley said.

Copyright 2010 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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