Wednesday, June 27, 2018

A New Take on Phantom in Love Never Dies

Sometimes, all you want is a good B-list sequel. 


Photo by Joan Marcus

I was raised on the original Phantom of the Opera Broadway soundtrack. At 12 years old, when I got my first boombox #datedmyselfalready, I owned three CDs: Celine Dion's greatest hits; Barbra Streisand duets (including a glorious one with Michael Crawford himself); and The Phantom of the Opera soundtrack. I must have blown through that CD hundreds of times, entranced with Crawford and Sarah Brightman's expressive, lush vocals. It helped spark my interest in real operas and is a show I've loved returning to through the years, particularly the excellent 25th anniversary redesigned production (click here to read my review of the show last December).

Photo by Joan Marcus

So when I learned that there was an Andrew Lloyd Webber-penned sequel, I wasn't sure what to think. Would it ruin the original for me? How could it possibly live up to its predecessor? Do we need another Phantom story? How could it feel fresh when the original story felt so exhaustively explored already?

Photo by Joan Marcus

I'm happy to say that Love Never Dies, now showing at the Orpheum, is actually pretty enjoyable. I'd liken it to the Brendan Fraser Mummy movies of the late 1990s - not classics, not profound, but genuinely enjoyable and full of enough quality to keep you interested. I don't want to give away too much of the story as I approached it with totally fresh eyes and was genuinely surprised by the ending, but a brief summary goes thus: It's been 10 years since the dramatic events of The Phantom of the Opera. Raul has gone totally broke and Christine comes out of musical retirement to perform in America to earn enough money to pay their debts and care for their son. It turns out that years before, the Phantom escaped to America with Madame Giry and her daughter Meg in tow and has since been holding court on a dark corner of Coney Island. Once the Phantom learns Christine is nearby he of course cannot help but try to entrance her all over again, and the ensuing action totally rearranges our previous understanding of the relationships between these main characters.

Photo by Joan Marcus

I found the music pretty, interesting and different from the original while still holding that eerie Phantom feeling. It almost felt a little oriental at moments (that Mummy movie vibe all over again), and there are a couple knockout songs on the show (including "Devil Take the Hindmost," a dark duet between the Phantom and Raoul, and the stunning flagship song "Love Never Dies"). There are several real-life opera performers in this cast, a wise choice that allows each aria-like song to truly soar. Gardar Thor Cortes is glorious as the Phantom; his expressive and wide ranging tenor is beautifully paired with the lush baritone tones of Sean Thompson as Raoul, and their duet was a highlight for me. Meghan Picerno's soprano is a total knockout as Christine Daae, and she can act too. Picerno gives a rich performance throughout the show and has great chemistry with both male leads; she really hits new heights in the second act, which was much more interesting than the first and included her glorious solo on "Love Never Dies." The true star of the cast is young Jake Heston Miller as Christine's son Gustave, who is spectacularly talented and knocks his role out of the park. Miller has the falsetto of angels, and he is very impressive for being so young. The roles of Madame Giry (played by Karen Mason) and Meg Giry (Mary Michael Patterson) are played with equal strength; there really isn't a vocal weak link in the cast, a pleasure since these latter roles often feel like they receive less attention at casting calls. Mason and Patterson have great chemistry and their layered acting really helps this sequel feel fresh, a feat for building off of such a well-known story.

Photo by Joan Marcus

The set is much simpler than that of the thrilling revival of the original, which was a bit disappointing but also not that big of a deal. It mostly consists of various frameworks to give the suggestion of Coney Island without being cumbersome, and it's effective if relatively uninspiring. There are a few titillating moments where we get some magical Phantom sightings, but the main showpiece was the revolving stage. The constant motion made the otherwise simple set feel much bigger than it was, and there is some impressive choreography that really utilizes the full capabilities of that stage. The costumes are beautifully colored and have some lovely detail; I wish I could have seen them more up close, especially some of the gowns worn by Meg and Christine. Check through the pictures I posted here and you'll see what I mean.

Photo by Joan Marcus

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by Love Never Dies, and it continues to grow on me after the curtains closed. At intermission I was feeling decidedly tepid about it; the second act really redeemed the show overall and made me more engaged. Since I saw it I haven't been able to stop humming along to the tunes, and I have a feeling that the more time I have to sit with Love Never Dies' lyrical orchestration, the more I'll like it. If I had my druthers I'd still make some edits - I think they could cut a few first act songs and shorten it to run without an intermission in a way that would really strengthen the story and make the pacing feel a bit quicker - but it's not at all bad as it is. If you love the original Phantom of the Opera and want to see something that will leave you happy and satisfied (like a boring but delicious chocolate chip cookie), I think Love Never Dies fits the bill. Hurry to go if you plan to, because it closes on July 1; click here for more information or to buy tickets.

Photo by Joan Marcus