January 11, 2018
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Up-and-down ‘Love Never Dies’ tour at Playhouse Square feels stuck in ‘Phantom’ past | Theater review
Andrew Lloyd Webber can talk all he wants about how he doesn’t regard “Love Never Dies” as a sequel to his hugely successful musical “The Phantom of the Opera.”
To be fair to the veteran musical-theater composer, his point is “Love Never Dies” — a touring production of which just began a stint at Playhouse Square in Cleveland — works as a stand-alone piece, that a person could enjoy the new show even if he or she never had seen “Phantom.”
That most likely is true — you can figure out how the masked Phantom of the Opera, soprano Christine Daae, Raoul and other characters relate to one another from the context of the show. However, these are characters from “The Phantom of the Opera” and clearly carry a great deal of emotional baggage from the experiences portrayed in that musical.
Perhaps resisting the “sequel” label gives Webber and fellow book writers Ben Elton, Glenn Slater and Frederick Forsyth — and lyricist Charles Hart — permission to play very fast and loose with the timeline. The events of “Phantom” were said to take place in 1881 — with the show’s flash-forward prologue set in 1905 — while “Love Never Dies” is said to take place a decade after the events of the first show, even though the year is now 1907. That kind of thing will drive a continuity freak crazy, but it is not a significant problem.
Instead, the problem is “Love Never Dies” feels like so many movie sequels — a lesser version of the original meant to appeal nostalgically to die-hard fans. It brings back those familiar characters and revisits the dynamics between them, but it fails to offer exciting new territory to be explored. And, unlike “Phantom,” “Love” isn’t based on a novel, which may help to explain why its story isn’t as compelling.
The show debuted in London’s West End in 2010, largely to negative reviews, and a Broadway production never materialized. “Love Never Dies” was greatly retooled for a production in Australia in 2011 that received better if not largely glowing reviews. The touring production in Cleveland is said to be largely based on the Australian version of the show.
Make no mistake — this is a production with a lot to offer, from very talented performers to solid musical numbers to elaborate staging and lighting. “Phantom” fans not expecting the world may be relatively pleased with “Love Never Dies,” warts and all.
The show begins with a depressed Phantom (Gardar Thor Cortes) writing music in a barely lit space, singing of the love he still feels for Christine in the gorgeous opening number “Till I Hear You Sing.” He is the man behind Mr. Y’s Phantasma, a circus-like world in itself on New York’s Coney Island that’s home to freak-show performers and burlesque dancers, including Meg Giri (Mary Michael Patterson), who, along with her mother, Madame Giri (Karen Mason), helped the Phantom pick up the pieces after the events in Paris and travel to America to start anew. Yet while Meg works furiously to impress him, he obviously still dreams of Christine (Meghan Picerno), now a famous singer in Europe.
However, Christine is wed to Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny (Sean Thompson), who has given into the vices of drinking and gambling. His debts have become a problem for the family, which also includes 10-year-old Gustave (a role shared by Casey Lyons and Jake Heston Miller). The Phantom uses the promise of great financial reward to lure Christine to New York, making it seem as though the invitation for her to sing in America is coming from Oscar Hammerstein.
After arriving by boat to much fanfare with Raoul and Gustave — the latter dying for more attention from the former — Christine soon enough learns the truth. And boy, does the Phantom still know how to make an entrance. (Sure, he seems like quite the stalker and someone who may not fare well during the #MeToo movement, but his flair for the dramatic can’t be denied.)
The story moves on from there, with Christine torn between being furious with her “Angel of Music” — “There is no ‘now’!” she insists to him when he starts talking of a new life for them — and being drawn to him and the music he has penned for her.
And don’t forget about Meg, who is genuinely happy to see her old friend again but who isn’t about to give up on trying to become the Phantom’s muse.
After the high point that is the aforementioned “Till I Hear You Sing,” “Love Never Dies” is an up-and-down affair both musically and visually.
Numbers such as the rocking Phantom-Gustave duet “The Beauty Underneath,” Meg’s period-evoking “Bathing Beauty” and underwhelming Phantom-Raoul pairing “Devil Take the Hindmost” leave something to be desired and all recur at various points in the show. On the other hand, Christine’s emotional titular number and an earlier duet between the Phantom and her, “Beneath a Moonless Sky,” offer something a bit better.
It is during “Beneath a Moonless Sky” the show is at its most beautiful, the pair standing on a lovely balcony and gorgeously lit. Then again, “Love Never Dies” has its share of gaudiness, the strung lights in the Phantom’s current lair conjuring thoughts of a Christmas in hell.
Cortes, once a child actor on the international series “Nonni and Manni,” is the most enjoyable singer in the group. It’s hard to get enough of his voice. Meanwhile, Picerno is technically impressive, hitting all the high notes the show demands. However, her singing feels a bit cold, no doubt some, if not most, of which you can chalk up to the songs themselves. Patterson does a nice job with Meg’s numbers, even if you’ll hope never to hear “Bathing Beauty” again after leaving the theater.
In the final, climactic moments of “Love Never Dies,” a woman holds a gun to her head and threatens to end it all. While some audience members may root for her to do just that — and wish they had the same option earlier in the evening — based on the general reaction at the performance Jan. 10 at the KeyBank State Theatre, they’d be in the minority.