Touring ‘Love Never Dies’ puts the see in sequel
By Bob Abelman
Tortured. Anguished. Frustrated.
This describes the dark, twisted title character at the heart of “Phantom of the Opera,” the longest-running musical in Broadway history and a production seen by over 130 million people worldwide.
But it also describes playwright/composer Andrew Lloyd Webber during the turbulent process of revising and remounting that show’s sequel “Love Never Dies,” which opened to poor reviews in London’s West End, was revisited before an engagement in Melbourne, Australia and further fine-tuned in Hamburg, Germany before beginning its 25-city U.S. tour this past October.
The new musical, like the original love affair between Christine Daaé and her Angel of Music, The Phantom, was passionate but incomplete.
It’s complete now, leaving the opening night Playhouse Square audience anything but tortured or anguished, though some faithful fans may well be a tad frustrated by the direction this sequel has taken.
The show takes place 10 years after the story in “Phantom of the Opera” ended. It’s 1907 and the Phantom (Gardar Thor Cortes) has left the Paris Opera House to run a sideshow at New York’s Coney Island along with the ever-loyal Madam Giry (Karen Mason) and her daughter Meg (Mary Michael Patterson) by his side.
When Christine (Meghan Picerno), now a world-renown soprano, gets an invitation from Oscar Hammerstein to perform in New York, the Phantom uses this as an opportunity to seduce her with music she cannot resist, by paying off her ne’re-do-well husband Raoul’s (Sean Thompson) massive gambling debt, and by befriending her young son, Gustave (for this performance, Jake Heston Miller).
The frustration comes from the demonization of the formerly heroic Raoul, the construction of a semi-softer and gentler-by-gradation Phantom, and setting the impending conflict between the two under a seedy Big Top tent rather than in a gothic subterranean lair.
Other areas of potential agitation can be found in the dull exposition early in the production that serves to bring the two or three people in the balcony who never witnessed the original musical up to speed, some new music that awkwardly incorporates the calliope rhythms of the boardwalk into otherwise operatic orchestrations, and the use of a carnival theme ala the Broadway revival of “Pippin” to liven things up.
And as haunting as is the Phantom’s opening “‘Til I Hear You Sing” and as gorgeous as is the duet “Beneath a Moonless Sky” between the Phantom and Christine, they never seduce as deeply nor soar as high as the original’s “All I Ask of You,” and “Music of the Night.”
But those who feel that this sequel is not up to snuff need to get over themselves.
The show’s score sits squarely in the realm of the original, which includes plenty of power ballads with beautiful lyrics by Glenn Slater (Christine’s performance of the second-act title song is remarkable), impressive high notes (Lloyd Webber’s work is not for faint-of-heart performers), and the clever and well-timed infusion of familiar “Phantom”-tropes (Lloyd Webber is infamous for plagiarizing himself even in shows that are not sequels) into the evening’s production.
The Phantom’s new carnival-themed and freak-filled underworld, described beautifully in the song “The Beauty Underneath,” is brilliantly designed and costumed by Gabriela Tylesova and dramatically lit by Nick Schlieper. It is as sinister and mysterious as this franchise demands. And there is plenty of dry ice to go around.
Most importantly, the talent found for this touring production is impressive. The voices and acting performances – particularly those of Cortes, Picerno and young Miller – should meet the high expectations of the show’s fan-base, impress Playhouse Square’s season subscribers, and knock the socks off of more casual musical theater consumers.
Director Simon Phillips and musical director Dale Rieling – who leads a top-notch and exclusively touring 13-piece orchestra – masterfully pull this complex production together.
During the opening night intermission, a fire alarm went off that required the brief evacuation of the audience. The official explanation was that the dry ice fog set off the sensitive security system, but it may well have been the rising temperature in the room generated by frustrated “Phantom” traditionalists.
Seats were still full, the dry ice was still plentiful and no disturbances plagued the second act of the show. Draw your own conclusions, but I like to think that the sequel and its dramatic climax may well have won over nay-sayers.
Touring “Love Never Dies” at Playhouse Square
WHERE: KeyBank State Theatre, 1519 Euclid Ave., Cleveland
WHEN: Through Jan. 28
TICKETS & INFO: $29-$109, call 216-241-6000 or visit playhousesquare.com
Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. 2017 AP Ohio Media Editors best columnist.
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on January 12, 2018.
Lead image: Meghan Picerno as Christine and Gardar Thor Cortes as The Phantom in touring “Love Never Dies.” Photo / Joan Marcus