Do we hear the iconic Phantom sing once more in this anxious-to-please production of a much-maligned sequel?
Yes, it’s true. Today, I’ll be talking about the infamous musical sequel that has sent many Phantom fans into a frenzy, as well as shocked countless critics in its seeming inability to even hold a candle to its iconic predecessor. Love Never Dies has indeed had a shaky history; the London production opened in 2010 to mediocre reviews, ultimately closing up shop a mere year and a half later despite numerous changes to the show over the course of its run. The Australian production improved things greatly, creating an entirely new set and giving the script a much-needed facelift. However, even with these changes, the show failed to do much better in Australia, and in subsequent countries that used this production style, such as Germany, the fates were similar.
It’s the “Australian” rendition, complete with a few final changes, that finally reached US cities last year, and with the release of the Australian cast recording to go along with the tour, it’s clear that Andrew Lloyd Webber has decided to cement this as the final, definitive version of his beloved sequel. Therefore, I’ll be judging the show entirely by the merits of the US tour, and having seen this production last weekend, I’ll provide my thoughts as clearly as possible.
In summation? Love Never Dies is a flawed, yet otherwise fun, hot mess of a guilty pleasure.
Yes, the story is ridiculous. Most of the characterizations and motivations don’t make sense. Nothing about it really justifies a sequel’s existence in the first place. Here, ten years after the events of Phantom (in 1907, even though the original takes place in 1881), we find that the Phantom has moved to New York City, starting up a creepy and mysterious amusement park on Coney Island with the help of overbearing stage mother Madame Giry and her daughter, Meg, who it seems has been putting on shows for both the adoring audiences in the park and the gawking men in her dressing room. But unfortunately for the Girys, the Phantom is still longing for his dear, sweet Christine’s company, so when he learns that Christine is arriving in America to help debut an opera house, he decides to stronghold her into singing a song at his park instead. It’s here we find out that once, ten years ago ago, the two shared a night of passion, before the Phantom left out of shame for the fact that he took away Christine’s purity...or something. Either way, Christine is understandably upset, and she claims to want nothing to do with him now. Along with Christine come her (now rebound) husband, Raoul, now a bitter alcoholic who doesn’t want much to do with his family, and their ten-year-old son, Gustave, who seems to possess a particular interest in the macabre and the musical, much like another central character we know… Are you putting the pieces together now?
I won’t spoil the story for anyone who hasn’t experienced Love Never Dies yet, but if the premise seems silly to you, then there isn’t much the show will do to change your mind. You either have to decide if this seems like the right ticket for you or, like me, take the story for what it is and enjoy it on its own terms. Regardless, the plot is definitely the weakest point in the entire musical for me, and there aren’t really enough structural facelifts or fancy set pieces to change that.
Fortunately, this lavish production has much to redeem the thin plot, and it’s clear that the team behind this tour gave their all to produce an enjoyable night out for audiences.
For starters, the score is absolutely gorgeous, possibly among the best Lloyd Webber has ever written. The music knows when to have its quiet moments, and it also knows when to be loud and overly dramatic in the way we adored so much in the original. My favorite number of the entire score has to be the Phantom’s solo, “Til I Hear You Sing,” sung beautifully by up-and-coming star Bronson Norris Murphy. Lush orchestrations accompany Christine’s wistful rendition of the title song, and tensions rise in “Devil Take the Hindmost,” a confrontational number between the Phantom and Raoul that starts the second act on a strong note. Of course, just like with the title song in the original, we must have an “out of place” number where the Phantom brings one of the “good” characters into his world; here, this is successfully done with “The Beauty Underneath,” a catchy rock number sung fantastically by Norris Murphy and the young Jake Heston Miller. Overall, Lloyd Webber gives one hundred percent to his songs, and despite the shortcomings in the plot, it’s obvious in the music that he saw this show as a passion project. I can’t fault the man for caring.
The set was also a feast for the eyes, as well as the costumes. From start to finish, the audience is transported into the Phantom’s twisted world of illusion and fantasy, and the beautiful dresses worn by Christine mesh perfectly with the bizarre costumes worn by the “freaks” of Fantasma; personally, I found that the designs reminded me a bit of a Cirque du Soleil show. The turning floor was a good decision, for it helped in providing smooth transitions between scenes while also aiding scenes on their own to function in creative ways. An arch over the stage with a distorted Phantom’s mask provided a darker, amusement park atmosphere, and the flashing lights along the backdrop during certain scenes were gorgeous.
Of course, a production can either be made or broken by its cast, and fortunately, the cast of this Love Never Dies was stunning. Meghan Picerno has an extensive history of opera on her resume, and it shows with her heavy acting and powerful voice that both floats gently and soars exuberantly to the back of the theatre; it’s clear that this Christine wouldn’t need a microphone to make her fantastic instrument heard. Mary Michael Patterson successfully plays an embittered Meg Giry, and as Meg’s journey takes a darker and darker turn over the course of the show, Patterson is believable in her descent into anger and madness, providing a barely-on-the-edge take that is effectively highlighted in her rich, deep mezzo soprano. Jake Heston Miller as Gustave nearly steals the show with his flawless vocals and dedicated performance. Sean Thompson and Karen Mason both also give strong performances as Raoul and Madame Giry, respectively, and the ensemble and actors who play the Phantom’s “freaks” also deserve a nod.
Bronson Norris Murphy as the Phantom was easily the highlight of the show for me. From the very beginning, his gestures and posture embody everything I could want in a Phantom, and many of his acting choices toe the line between melodramatic and genuinely emotional in a way that only adds to the Phantom’s theatrical and tragic nature. Revealing a sweet voice that hypnotizes with its rich vibrato, Norris Murphy shows audiences how the Phantom managed to woo Christine all those years ago...you know, despite other circumstances. If this actor is ever cast in Phantom on Broadway, I will be sure to do what is in my power to see him.
Overall, this production of Love Never Dies is a prime example of a musical that has a bunch of enjoyable positives working against a negative--that negative being the plot. If what you’ve heard of the story repulses you, or you never much liked Phantom in the first place, then this production might not be for you. However, if you want a nice night to just sit back and enjoy beautiful music set to a lavish set and wonderful performances, then this tour of Love Never Dies is definitely a show you may want to look into visiting.
(Photo by Joan Marcus)