January 18, 2018
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Not Much to Like in 'Love Never Dies,' the Phantom Sequel Now at Playhouse Square
If you’re a dewy-eyed romantic and if you reach for a fainting couch at the very thought of two accomplished singers applying their vocal chops to tunes fairly dripping with maudlin sentimentality, there’s a show in town that will delight your throbbing heart. It’s Love Never Dies now at Playhouse Square, the Andrew Lloyd Webber sequel to his enormously successful Phantom of the Opera, which opened in 1986.
However, if you seek anything more from a musical theatrical experience—such as well-developed characters, understandable lyrics, a varied and complex score, and a soupcon of wit—you may find this Phantom redux a very hard slog. The producers have fashioned a dazzling, dizzying production in the service of material that is so banal and predictable the Phantom himself might be tempted to entirely cover his half-masked face and go completely incognito.
It all begins inauspiciously with the Phantom sitting morosely behind a scrim, often facing upstage, and singing the dirge-like “’Till I Hear You Sing.” Meanwhile, a single cold spotlight is trained on the audience, as if we’re in an interrogation room and our lawyer hasn’t showed up yet.
After that, there are plenty—nay, gobs—of color and lights swirling and spinning across the stage, thanks to the set and costume design by Gabriela Tylesova. But the story, such as it is, never gets off the ground.
When we last saw the mysterious composer guy known as The Phantom, he had disappeared from his underground lair at the Opera Populaire, the Paris opera house. His love and muse Christine had just hustled out of there with her lover Raoul, with Christine-wannabe Meg holding the Phantom’s mask in her hand.
Fast-forward ten years to this play, set in 1915, where the same characters convene in, wait for it, Coney Island. That’s where The Phantom, mask back in place, is operating a circus-cum-amusement park called the Phantasma. And he has maneuvered Christine, Raoul and their young son Gustave to visit America, in hopes of rekindling his torrid, fog-drenched romance with Christine and her voice that made his songs come alive.
Are you tearing up yet? Well you will be, and probably for all the wrong reasons. Composer Webber and his creative team, including Glenn Slater (lyrics) and Ben Felton (book co-writer along with Webber, Slater and Frederick Forsyth) make a half-hearted feint at storytelling and instead focus all their attention on getting Phantom and Chris to sing loudly and frequently at each other. And boy, do they sing! Gadar Thor Cortes as The Phantom has a bountiful and powerful voice, as does Meghan Picerno who plays Christine. They are wonderful.
Trouble is, the songs are mostly flat, agonizingly repetitive, and hard to follow. Even though they’re singing in English, it would help if the lyrics were projected onstage somewhere since words and phrases are often buried under an avalanche of weepy, seepy orchestrations. There are a couple exceptions, such as Christine’s Act Two showstopper of the title song, staged in a profusion of gorgeous peacock feathers.
Sean Thompson as Raoul and Mary Michael Patterson as Meg, each extremely talented, also suffer from the same problems. Although at the beginning of the second act, they share a scene in which the lyrics are actually distinct and understandable in “Why Does She Love Me?” That is in part because some of the words are spoken, not sung.
Another critical problem with Love is that it takes itself way too seriously. Minus the sultry mystery that infused the original Phantom, this show desperately needs a bit of humor to lighten the load. Indeed, there are no laughs in the entire two-and-a-half hour show, if you don’t count the titters occasioned by the final death scene that plays with all the credibility of Sofia Coppola’s unintentionally hilarious demise in Godfather III.
A trio of circus geeks is on hand to try and provide some levity. But thin and creepy Gangle (Stephen Petrovich), fat and creepy Squelch (Richard Koons), and short and creepy Fleck (Katrina Kemp, who is a Little Person) are not so much funny as, well, creepy. And one wishes that Gangle and Squelch would leave poor Fleck alone, as they are constantly lifting her up and swinging her about as if she were a hand prop instead of a real person.
Under the direction of Simon Phillips, the show is a misbegotten attempt to cash in on the popularity of the Phantom franchise. Too bad they didn’t follow their own advice as spelled out in “Why Does She Love Me?” That’s when Meg counsels Raoul, “You should have never come to America/It’s not a place for people like you and Christine.” Amen to that.