Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arthur's review of Ball: A Musical Tribute to My Lost Testicle
Love Never Dies takes advantage of the disappearance of the Phantom at the end of The Phantom of the Opera, to answer the question "where did he go?" And what of that show's romantic couple, songbird Christine Daaé and dashing Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny? Frankly, I never thought to ask those questions, but I admit to not being a tremendous Phantom fan. At least, though, it was based on a reputable literary source, Gaston Le Roux's 1910 novel. The novel attributed as a source for Love Never Dies, titled "The Phantom of Manhattan," by Frederick Forsyth, was created simply to provide a plot for the sequeland, in fact, Ben Elton's book for Love Never Dies uses just slim bits of Forsyth's work.
Ostensibly, Love Never Dies begins ten years after we last saw the Phantom, Christine and Raoul. Never mind that Phantom takes place in 1881 and Love Never Dies in 1907. Narrative consistency is not really important here. In fact, Love Never Dies in many ways is less a sequel than a brand new story using the same main characters. It helps to know that in the first story, the Phantom acted as a Svengali who mentored Christine to hone her beautiful soprano voice to glorious heights, murdering anyone who stood in his way, and in exchange sought to fully possess her. But her heart was always securely held by Raoul. Now, it seems, nopeChristine was actually fully enamored with the Phantom and stayed with Raoul only because the Phantom, knowing their love was ill fated, vanished. And now their love must no longer be ill fated, as the Phantom is determined to win her back.
The Phantom has left behind the baroque extravagance of the Paris Opera and become the impresario of Phantasma, an extravagantly macabre funhouse in Coney Island, the beachfront amusement mecca on the Brooklyn's Atlantic shore. In those times, Coney Island was a resort visited by New York's upper and middle classes, with swank hotels, garish amusements, and music halls. Madame Giry, ballet-mistress of the Paris Opera had helped him escape from France and then joined him to direct musical productions at Phantasma, in hopes that the Phantom will invest the same attentions on her singer-dancer daughter Meg as he formerly did on Christine. However much a pipe dream this is, given the Phantom's devotion to pure operatic melody while Meg's specialties are by-the-sea striptease numbers (which it is impossible to believe the humorless Madame Giry actually created), her hopes are dashed when the news breaks that the great Christine Daaé is travelling from France to Manhattan to inaugurate a new opera house. The Phantom springs into action, tricking Christine, Raoul (now her husband), and their son Gustave into coming to Coney Island where he plots to rekindle his lost love, using a rapturous song he has composed for her as an aphrodisiac.
Those five characters from the Phantom's first musical outing, along with Gustave, who is given a significant place in the narrative, are the principal characters in Love Never Dies. There are three other named characters, a trio of disturbingly garish and over-mannered clowns from PhantasmaFleck, Gangle, and Squelchwho introduce us early on to the amusement park's twisted take on carnival fun, and reappear throughout to do the Phantom's bidding. None of the characters offer a shred of comic relief, as the overbearing prima donna does in The Phantom of the Opera, making Love Never Dies unrelentingly sinister. One might say it also aspires to be romantic, but its high quotient of creepiness curdles any hope of romance breaking through.
If the narrative devised for Love Never Dies is implausible and unengaging, it still has the Lloyd Webber score, and that is something, especially as majestically played by a fifteen-member orchestra. There are a number of beautiful songs, most notably the title song, sung gloriously by Meghan Picerno as Christine. After a brief prologue, "The Coney Island Waltz" breaks out, with the full ensemble entreating us to the pleasures of the place, making it clear that the pleasures are likely to be laced with pain. In the middle of act one, three songs in succession are all quite lovely: "Look with Your Heart," sung by Christine to comfort her son Gustave; and two duets for Christine and the Phantom, "Beneath a Moonless Sky" and "Once Upon Another Time." As the Phantom, Bronson Norris Murphy sings with a stirring baritone that blends well in the duets with Picerno. Unfortunately, Murphy does not project the shift from the old Phantom to the newthis one remains menacing and dark, and never the ardent lover the story wants us to believe he has become.
Meghan Picerno is persuasive, not only in her singing, but her acting the role of Christine, believably trading in her naiveté of ten years earlier (or 27 years earlier, what the heck) for a more sophisticated, torn-between-two lovers woman. Sean Thompson sings and acts well as Raoul, another character who has markedly changed since we last saw him. He delivers the bitterness of "Why Does She Love Me?" with conviction. Mary Michael Patterson is delightful as Meg, who changes from spunky to desperate in the course of the show, though the musical numbers devised for her by Lloyd Webber (vaudeville turns that would have been yawned at even at the height of vaudeville) do little to enhance her shine. Karen Mason is deep in character as Madame Giry, full of dark regrets and envy. Jake Heston Miller as Gustave at the opening performance (he alternates with Christian Harmston in the role) gave a particularly strong performance as the ten-year-old and sings quite beautifully.
The physical production is fartoo farover the top, though without an iconic piece such as the crashing chandelier. With illuminated frameworks meant to be roller coaster piers and rails as background, the lights, sound, and garish decor of Phantasma saturates the stage, while oversized fragments of the Phantom's mask frame either side as constant reminders that this is not a nice place. The elegant turn of century gowns worn by Christine and Raoul's gilded vest contrast starkly with the fantastic costumes worn by the clowns and side-show freaks. The design team has had no shortage of imagination. In this case, though, they may have been advised toward the direction of "less is more."
The choreography by Graeme Murphy Ao is in the opening waltz and the music hall numbers in which Meg performs, but does not make a very strong impression. Simon Phillips, who directed Love Never Dies productions in Australia, which resurrected the show after an unsuccessful London run, repeats the duties for this, its first North American tour. He certainly succeeds in coupling together the elaborate parts of the show, and stunningly frames the show's best moment, the performance of the title song. That it moves too slowly and feels too ponderous is a function of the labored story, overly wrought physical production, and the inclusion of too many throw-away musical bits that fail to hold interest.
The film industry's financial survival seems, these days, to depend on sequels. But the stage is different. How many plays have had successful sequels? Neil Simon's autobiographical Eugene Jerome trilogy leaps into my mind, but nothing else. As for musicals, Annie was followed by Annie 2: Miss Hannigan's Revenge, which closed after a try-out run, and Annie Warbucks, which managed 200 performances Off-Broadway. The buoyant innocence of Bye Bye Birdie did not help Bring Back Birdie's chances (it eked out four performances after opening in 1981), and the winning mix of ribaldry and tenderness in Best Little Whorehouse in Texas was absent in Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public, which lasted all of 16 post-opening performances in 1994. That Love Never Dies has enjoyed a longer shelf life is likely more a statement about financial clout than artistic merit.
Be forewarned: The conclusion of Lover Never Dies leaves open the possibility of yet another sequel. Probably not a very good idea, but I'm just saying...
Love Never Dies, through July 1, 2018, at the Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $40.00 - $145.00. For information and tickets call 800-982-2787 or go to hennepintheatretrust.org. For more information on the tour, visit www.loveneverdies.com/
Book: Ben Elton, based on the novel The Phantom of Manhattan by Frederick Forsyth; Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber; Lyrics: Glen Slater; Additional Lyrics: Charles Hart; Director: Simon Phillips; Choreographer: Graeme Murphy Ao; Set and Costume Design: Gabriela Tylesova; Lighting Design: Nick Schlieper; Sound Design: Mick Potter; Wig and Hair Design: Backstage Artistry; Design Supervisor: Edward Pierce; Technical Director: Randy Moreland; Music Supervisor: Kristen Blodgette; Music Coordinators: Talitha Fehr and David Lai; Music Director: Dale Rieling; Casting: Tara Rubin Casting, Lindsay Levine, CSA; Production Stage Manager: Michael Danek; Associate Director: Gavin Mitford; Associate Choreographer: Simone Sault.
Cast: Christian Harmston (*Gustave), Katrina Kemp (Fleck), Richard Koons (Squelch), Karen Mason (Madame Giry), Jake Heston Miller (*Gustave), Bronson Norris Murphy (The Phantom), Mary Michael Patterson (Meg Giry), Stephen Petrovich (Gangle), Meghan Picerno (Christine Daaé), Sean Thompson (Raoul); * alternating performances
Ensemble: Chelsey Arce, Diana diMarzio, Tyler Donahue, Yesy Garcia, Tamar Greene, Natalia Lepore Hagan, Lauren Lukacek, Alyssa McAnany, Rachel Anne Moore, Dave Schoonover, John Swapshire IV, Kelly Swint, Lucas Thompson, Arthur Wise; Swings: Erin Chupinsky, Alyssa Giannetti, Adam Soniak, Correy West.