Love Never Dies
Andrew Lloyd Webber (Music); Glenn Slater (Lyrics); Ben Elton (Book)
Charles Hart (Additional Lyrics); David Cullen & Andrew Lloyd Webber (Orchestration)
|Garder Thor Cortes & Meghan Picerno|
Since the longest running show in Broadway history opened in 1988 and after its six-year, record-breaking run in San Francisco (1993-1999), I must admit I have seen Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera at least a half dozen times and will probably go again when it returns on yet another tour later this year. I have followed with close interest during the past eight or so years the troubled history of the sequel that Webber et al penned for Phantom – one whose premiere closed in London four days for extensive rewrites. It was thus with both high anticipation and some trepidation that I made my way to the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts for the current version of Love Never Dies.
I soon found that one has to suspend a lot of disbelief to accept some of the underlying, highly improbable plot factors of the sequel. With little spoken dialogue, this is a musical that tries so very hard — that is, often too hard — to be a grand opera with a rhymed libretto set to waves of highly dramatic music. Most damning (for me, at least), there is only one song of the thirty that has any chance of being remembered upon leaving (that being the title song sung as a stunning aria late in the show).
That all said, Love Never Dies is actually visually astounding through the combined efforts of set and costume designer, Gabriela Tylesova, and lighting designer, Nick Schlieper. The orchestration by Webber and David Cullen is admittedly beautiful, especially as performed by the fifteen-piece orchestra under the direction of Dale Rieling. And, the improbable story that has more twists and turns than a Coney Island roller coaster does in the end have a way of sucking one in and even almost drawing a tear for its very dramatic, tragic-opera-like ending.
This sequel which occurs ten years after Phantom ends (conveniently ignore the 1907 date of the sequel and the 1881 date of the original) is a heavily re-worked version for a somewhat successful 2011 Australian run, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Glenn Slater and additional ones by Charles Hart, and book by Ben Elton. The two-hour show (plus intermission) opens with the Phantom singing in a forlorn, subdued voice about “ten long years living a mere façade of life” because “in my mind I hear melodies pure and unearthly but I find I cannot give them a voice without you.” The “you” is of course Christine Daaé, and it is clear the Phantom is lost without the woman who left him ten years prior to be with her lover, Raoul. “I’ll always feel no more than halfway real ‘til I hear you sing once more,” Gardar Thor Cortes as The Phantom lets ring in an echoing and grand voice as the Prelude to Love Never Dies concludes.
|Mary Michael Patterson & Cast of Love Never Dies|
The Phantom is now in, of all places, Brooklyn’s Coney Island, where he was somehow brought under cover by the Paris Opera’s ballet mistress, Madame Giry, and her daughter Meg (who was also Christine’s friend in the original Phantom). Both of them now work with him as he runs a major attraction and vaudeville show at the amusement park known as “Mister Y’s Phantasma.” In a eye-popping, light-dazzling “The Coney Island Waltz,” we are introduced to the acrobats, dancing bear, clowns, puppets, and a trio of freak show performers (Dr. Gangle, Miss Fleck, and Mr. Squelch) of the Phantom’s current domain; and we see that Meg (Mary Michael Patterson) has become a pantaloons-and-ribbon clad, “Ooh-La-La Girl” star amongst a bevy of shimmy-shaking, frenetically dancing girls (“Only for You”).
If all this is beginning to seem a bit wild and a stretch from where we left off at the end of Phantom, just wait to see what is coming. Christine’s marriage to a now-drunkard Raoul has left them in need of money, even though she is a much-celebrated opera singer in France. A supposed offer by Oscar Hammerstein to come to New York to sing for the opening of his new music hall brings Christine, Raoul, and their ten-year-old (note the age!) son, Gustave, to the Big Apple.
When the Phantom suddenly appears in Christine’s hotel room (the first of several surprise appearances he will make, increasingly more ludicrous than surprising and dramatic), the two sing an overly stylized, ridiculously dramatic “Once Upon Another Time.” The couple’s movements and reactions (especially Mr. Cortes’) are more like those one remembers from over-done gestures in the era’s silent movies. (It was at this point that I fully realized that Love Never Dies is for sure not the caliber of the original Phantom and that Director Simon Phillips has failed in his guiding these otherwise excellent actors to tone it down a bit.) While both Mr. Cortes and Meghan Picerno (playing Christine) clearly have opera-trained and opera-worthy voices, the loud and emotionally laden cries they make back and forth in this first number together actually made me want both to laugh and to cry (in disappointment). Fortunately, not all subsequent numbers by the two are so over-acted; and their voices are each often stunning to hear – even if the music and lyrics are sometimes quite unforgettable.
The Phantom makes an offer to Christine that she and even her reluctant husband cannot refuse: Sing one song he has written for her and receive double the stipend Hammerstein is offering (an engagement that is probably a false one created by the Phantom to get Christine on the same shores as he). The story now really begins its wild ride, with revelations about who is Gustave’s real father (guess), with Meg having a major attack of jealousy once reunited with her long-lost friend Christine, and with Christine of course drawn back beyond all reason into the magnetic powers of her “angel of music.”
The Coney Island world of the Phantom itself is surreal and quite bizarre. While some of the musical numbers and story events that take place in an underground of crawling creatures, mirror-encased freaks, and rotating pyramids are a showcase of set design wonder, the setting is too reminiscent of the gutters of Paris that ran under the Opera House in Phantom and not enough connected to the story at hand to make a lot of sense.
Vocally, the entire cast of principals is superb to a person; but again, the songs they deliver are often less than satisfying in lyrics and music. The delightful surprise of the evening is the young Jake Heston Miller, who plays ten-year-old Gustave (alternating performances with Casey Lyons). His angelic, boy soprano voice rings phenomenally clear and true with its ability to communicate curiosity, wonder, innocence, and love as required. He also brings a mature acting ability that supersedes by many years his young age. That he is the key, climatic element is actually one of the reasons this show comes close to being truly moving and memorable.
|Jake Heston Miller & Meghan Picerno|
Gustave also shares a moving and plot-important moment with his mother in their hotel just before the Phantom makes his first appearance to her. After being rejected by his dad Raoul (who is too preoccupied with drink to play with him), Christine and he share a duet that does really work in lyrics and music, “Look With Your Heart.” Christine lovingly sings to her son lines that will guide him later in making a choice regarding the Phantom: “Look with your heart and not with your eyes; a heart understands, a heart never lies.” Both Ms. Picerno and young Mr. Miller deliver an impressive, touching moment.
The highlight of the show – and the one that cannot be forgotten long after the final bow – is Meghan Picerno’s arrestingly beautiful aria when her Christine sings the song the Phantom has written for her, “Love Never Dies.” If Andrew Lloyd Webber had written even a few more songs in the same caliber as this one, then crazy plot lines and nonsensical scenic settings be damned. His sequel would be another winner and would probably have been on Broadway prior to this tour – a destination so far denied the show. Ms. Picerno could be singing in a Puccini opera in a number one might easily attribute to the master himself. The ease with which she reaches into heavenly heights in such a soft, almost whispered voice is astonishingly exquisite as she sings, “Love never dies, love never alters … life may be fleeting, love lives on.”
In the end, am I glad I went to see the Phantom sequel, Love Never Dies? Yes, I have to say I am because while curiosity killed the cat, my curiosity was just too great not to know what Andrew Lloyd Webber did that has had such a troubled history after so many other major stage successes. Can I recommend the show? With some reservations, I think it is worth the effort but maybe not the ticket price if you have to sacrifice much in order to go. But I will have to confess this: The San Jose audience rose in a rousing, hoorah-filled standing ovation at the end of the show as The Phantom and Christine took their bows. So, who am I to judge?
Rating: 3 E
Love Never Diescontinues through March 18, 2018 at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts as part of Broadway San Jose, 255 South Almaden Boulevard, San Jose. Tickets are available online at http://broadwaysanjose.com.
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
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