Regional Reviews: Chicago
Props to Andrew Lloyd Webber for breaking musical theatre tradition by opening so unexpectedly, rather than with a more traditional opening number establishing where we are. Two numbers that immediately follow"Coney Island Waltz" and "Only for You"serve that purpose. We see we're at the Coney Island amusement park in 1907 and meet the cast of "Phantasma," a circus/vaudeville show produced by a mysterious "Mr. Y." (Guess who that is?) Phantasma's cast is an intriguing assortment of players, colorfully costumed, and the stunning set by Gabriella Tylesova (who also designed the costumes) is a maze of roller coaster tracks and twinkling lights that suggest the famed park at night, ably lit by Nick Schliefer.
Bookwriter Ben Elton and lyricist Glenn Slater neatly work in the necessary exposition. It turns out that after the Phantom's near capture at the end of <>The Phantom of the Opera, his protector Madame Giry (Karen Mason) managed to flee to New York with him and her daughter Meg (the one-time fellow chorus member of Christine at the Paris Opera House). Madame Giry raised the money to produced Phantasma, providing employment for the three of them. The equilibrium is threatened when they learn Christine will be visiting New York City from Paris to perform at the opening of Oscar Hammerstein's new opera house. The Phantom, as we could have imagined even had we not been told so in the opening number or from the title, has never stopped loving her.
Christine has become an international sensation over the past decade. When she and husband Raoul arrive in New York, we meet their young son Gustave (who we will later presume to be nine years and three months old for reasons that will become apparent). The Phantom meets their arrival at the dockclandestinely, of course. We learn that Raoul has not remained entirely the gentleman hero of the earlier musical.
The Phantom has not lost his unique ability to appear seemingly out of nowhere, and after craftily removing Raoul from the couple's hotel suite on the premise of a one-on-one meeting between Raoul and Hammerstein, The Phantom enters through the balcony doors. Singing "Through a Moonlit Sky," Christine tells the the Phantom she loved him and wanted to stay with him, while he reminds her he had to leave. The mob was going to kill him, after all. This is followed by another love duet ("Once Upon Another Time") and the Phantom convinces Christine to sing a song of his composition at Phantasma, promising to leave her alone if she does.
Meg Giry warns Christine that she seems to lose it whenever she sings the Phantom's music. Madame Giry, of all peoplethough played by the excellent Karen Masongets to sing the act one closer and we're led to believe she may be a greater threat to Christine than the Phantom.
The exposition-heavy first act generally holds one's attention, though the trouble with Love Never Dies really begins with that very long hotel scene. In act two, though, the action starts to feel interminable, opening with a very long scene involving Raoul in a bar that may be at their Manhattan hotelor maybe Coney Island. Other scenesparticularly the final one, which I won't spoil heredrag on. Sadly, the mocking moniker "Paint Never Dries" that the musical earned on its premiere 2010 production in London proves to be apt, despite the reported revisions subsequently made by Australian director Simon Phillips.
Bookwriter Ben Elton knows something about writing suspense, as evidenced by his play Popcorn and his book and lyrics for The Beautiful Game, written with Lloyd Webber. Director Philips put together an entertaining Priscilla and Lloyd Webber has certainly put on a successful show or two or twenty over his career. Could nobody see that this piece drags?
The concept of taking these characters to Coney Island is a sound one, taken from the novel "The Phantom of Manhattan" by Frederick Forsyth. Like the Paris Opera House, Coney Island was a magical place, and a little mysterious, but in different ways from the opera. But who are these characters anyway? In Phantom, we at least had a little backstory on Christine (the loss of her father) that made her empathetic. Here, she's just a bland figure that can't choose between her gambling-addicted husband and a murderer who once kidnapped her. And what's going on with the Phantom? He still lives in a lair (and it's cool, a hall of mirrors). He can still pop up out of nowhere, but he seems to be less self-conscious about the mask and goes out in public as well. It's not clear if we're supposed to be afraid of him, sympathetic to him, or what?
Harold Prince's original take on The Phantom of the Opera was to play it as a great romance. I prefer the downsized, retooled version directed by Laurence Connor now on tour that plays it more as a horror story and simply has more fun with it. Phillips' Love Never Dies tries to be more in the Prince mold, but we don't get invested enough in the characters for it to work on that level. Prince's take, as self-important as it treated itself, as least had some comic relief. This sequel is relatively humorless.
Lloyd Webber's score is ballad-heavy, insufficiently varied and rather monotonous. The ballads, are pleasant if undistinguished. The title songthe big climax in which Christine will choose between the Phantom and Raoulis a reworking of "Our Kind of Love," from The Beautiful Game with Slater's lyrics replacing Elton's, but it still sounds like "The Theme from The Apartment." The novelty numbera period pastiche called "Bathing Beauties," sung by Meg and the ensemble, only slows down the storytellingand there are no truly witty comedy or upbeat numbers in the style of Phantom's "Prima Donna," or "Masquerade."
The score judiciously reprises themes from Phantom and, given that the Phantom lyricist Charles Hart is credited for "additional lyrics," one must wonder if ALW didn't dip into his trunk of songs cut from the original. Slater's new lyrics are decent, if unsurprising, though I'd like to know whether he or Hart want to own up to a lyric like "Devil Take the Hindmost" (and rhyming it with "designed most"). Like the score of the earlier musical, this one is mostly sung-through and the recitative is equally uninventive. It is well-sung, and accompanied by a 28-piece orchestra, playing rich and full arrangements by Lloyd Webber and David Cullen.
The tour's leads come from the opera world. Gardar Thor Cortes as the Phantom and Meghan Picerno both are impressive singers (though Cortes's lyrics were hard to understand at times, adding to the overall narrative confusion of the piece). There is strong work from Karen Mason as Madame Giry, Sean Thompson as Raoul, Mary Michael Patterson as Meg, and Casey Lyons (who alternates with Jake Heston Miller) as Gustave. The ensemble is strong, led by featured performers Katrina Kemp, Richard Koons, and Stephen Petrovich. The choreography by Graeme Murphy is more movement than dance.
It's a big production, but apart from the visual design, not a particularly inspired one. There may not be a way to turn a one-time "monster" like the Phantomeven one who was shown to have some humanityback into a romantic leading man. Would we really want a sequel to King Kong in which Kong ends up with Fay Wray?
Love Never Dies, through Sunday, March 4, 2018, at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph, Chicago IL. For tickets and further information visit www.broadwayinchicago.com or call 800-775-2000. For more information on the tour, visit www.loveneverdies.com/ustour/.