By Patrick O’Brien
In Andrew Lloyd Webber’s blockbuster Phantom of the Opera, the world is in jeopardy, the world being the Paris Opera and the colorful personalities who are its lifeblood.
It all comes down to the wide-eyed ingenue, Christine Daaé: Will she give in to the sinister Phantom’s demand for her lifelong devotion to save everyone and everything she knows from his reign of terror — especially her sweetheart Raoul — or will she defeat him with pure selflessness?
Now, in Lloyd Webber’s sequel musical, Love Never Dies, set 10 years later in a fantastical Coney Island amusement park of the Phantom’s own design, everything comes down to Christine once more: Will she sing once more for her former master? Or will…well, that’s about it.
Listen to her soliloquy midway through Act Two, a callback to Phantom‘s “Twisted Every Way.” The long wordless stretches are because they dropped some lyrics from the original that weren’t quite applicable to this new context. Such lyrics include “Am I to risk my life to win the chance to live;” or even “[the Phantom] kills without a thought [and] murders all that’s good.” What worked for a tragic Gothic romance doesn’t quite work as the more straightforward and traditional romance the Lord had in mind. In fact, it’s so straightforward, there’s no mystery, really. (Ben Elton on book; Glenn Slater on particularly rod A-into-slot B lyrics.)
(Protip: Don’t make “Will she sing” the major — and only — event of your musical.)
How to go about treating Love Never Dies has been a fevered topic of Phantom fan debate ever since its first iterations in 2010. Accept it as canon and contend with a whole lotta drastically different characters and reams of left-field developments; treat it as a standalone piece and get thrown off by the great many references to the original.
It would be one thing to expect characters to be irrevocably changed after they’d been thoroughly Svengali’d for years. It’s another thing when the characters who’ve changed have changed only to stack the deck against everyone opposed to the Phantom and Christine’s One True Love.
Raoul, the dashing Rock of Gibraltar, is now a displaced souse given to self-pity. Madame Giry, the Phantom’s awed and frightened but always obedient servant, is now monomaniacally determined to seek reward for her personal and financial investments into his well-being. Meg, Christine’s confidant and star of the Paris Opera ballet, is now a burning-out burlesque act in the Phantom’s flagship variety show. That one doesn’t sound so bad, yeah? Wait.
Svengali himself? The Phantom has also changed, not entirely for the better. Once as fearful as he was pathetic — an unparalleled genius who contented himself with a niche in the Opera cellars — is now a powerful impresario with a bevy of agents and a line of people around the block seeking his favor.
As for Christine, she’s lost her agency. It’s not so much that she made a choice and it didn’t turn out as planned; no, she’s going to make the right choice. (If only she could find a creative and sexual dynamo who didn’t have a body count.)
Only in the second act do these characters’ hang-ups come to the fore, and only then, in the last 10 minutes or so, and only then if anyone’s on board for anything beyond striking visuals and music.
Because give Love Never Dies this much credit: it sounds great. A carefully selected cast of Broadway and opera pros belting out high-flying romance, and backed by a fully loaded pit orchestra, can only be expected for this, the musical’s US premiere tour. (Shorn of text, the music is some of the Lord’s best.) Meghan Picerno is, vocally speaking, perfect for the role of Christine 10 years on, retaining the shimmer of her youth while properly maturing. Gardar Thor Cortes boasts power and ardency of expression as the Phantom. And Chicago native Casey Lyons is a boy (soprano) wonder as Gustave, Christine’s son.
And it looks great: the Phantom’s new digs look fantastic: equal parts opulent, garish, forbidden; Gabriela Tylesova’s work here is a worthy continuation of Maria Björnson’s iconic Phantom designs.
The world of Coney Island is delightfully crazy, but it can’t disguise that the problems of the little people in it don’t amount to a hill of beans.
Broadway in Chicago presents “Love Never Dies” through March 4 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph Street, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.