Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Review: LOVE NEVER DIES Finds its Happily Never After

Meghan Picerno as Christine Daaé and Gardar Thor Cortes as The Phantom.
All photos by Joan Marcus

Romance based on obsession is a challenging tale in today’s world. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1986 hit musical The Phantom of the Opera might have had a more difficult debut if it had taken place today amid the #MeToo movement. But it didn’t, and the British composer’s masterpiece went on to conquer the West End, Broadway, and the rest of the world, creating legions of fans in its wake.

Now its sequel, Love Never Dies, is making its world tour, but lightning, as they say, isn’t striking twice for this continuation of the Phantom/Christine saga. Curiosity and the unwavering affection of those impassioned fans seem to be the main reasons audiences are flocking to the Hollywood Pantages Theatre for the musical’s short stay. Indeed, the women sitting behind me could barely contain their excitement at seeing the production, a sentiment that didn’t diminish throughout the night.

And much like the Phantom’s fixation on the chorus girl with a golden voice he abducted to turn into a star, Lloyd Webber has been obsessed with turning Love Never Dies into a success.

He began work on the story four years after Phantom premiered in London. It took another seventeen years before he would start composing the score and another three years with multiple collaborators before Love Never Dies finally opened in the West End, albeit to disappointing reviews. He reworked the troubled production, replaced the set, brought in a new director and lyricist to fix trouble spots, and reopened what he felt was a more vibrant musical. Still, it never aroused the same excitement as Phantom. Its London engagement was shorter than anticipated and plans for a Broadway run were scrapped. Productions scheduled to run in other countries also went through significant changes.

The version on stage at the Pantages is one that was reworked for the 2011 Australian premiere, complete with lavish sets and costumes, gorgeous operatic voices, and an orchestra that fills the art deco house with glorious sound. These attributes alone make Love Never Dies a thrill for musical lovers, but you’ll need to overlook a story that tampers with your recollection of the events in Phantom. They say you can’t rewrite the past but, in the case of Love Never Dies, you’d never know it.

It seems that Christine was actually in love with the Phantom, and more happened during the gondola ride to his subterranean lair than they let on. At the end of the musical, miraculously, Madame Giry saves him from the angry mob we thought killed him. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Front L-R: Richard Koons (Squelch), Katrina Kemp (Fleck), Stephen Petrovich
(Gangle) and the Ensemble in The Coney Island Waltz

When the sequel opens, it is 1907 and ten years have passed (yes, the math is off). Erik (Gardar Thor Cortes as the Phantom) isn’t dead but alive and well and living in Coney Island where he runs a commercial concert hall among the fantasy world of boardwalk freaks and outsiders, still pining for his darling soprano. The lovers, Christine (Meghan Picerno) and Raoul (Sean Thompson) are unhappily married with a 10-year-old son (Casey Lyons at this performance), and young Meg Giry (Mary Michael Patterson) is now a glorified singing, dancing stripper who performs in the burlesques at Erik’s show palace while sleeping with the investors her mother finds to fund Erik’s venture.

Madame Giry’s (Karen Mason) objective is to secure their future with the Phantom’s fortune and everything is going according to plan until the announcement that the now-famous soprano is coming to America to perform a concert for Oscar Hammerstein. When Erik learns of the trip, he intervenes to bring Christine and her family to Coney Island. Cue the music. Cue the lights. You can bet there is a mirror waiting in her future that casts more than her own reflection in it.

Though the production’s spectacle is impressive – this is an expensive touring set and the costumes are divine (both by Gabriela Tylesova) – no amount of glitz can compensate for the melodramatic book or performances. The operatic gestures and posturing are stilted and director Simon Phillips doesn’t seem to notice or care, although he does create some heavenly stage pictures.

Gardar Thor Cortes and Meghan Picerno

One of the problems is that Ben Elton’s book and Lloyd Webber’s repetitious score stretch moments across minutes like schmaltzy grand opera. The dramatic throughline isn’t interesting enough, nor are Glenn Slater’s* lyrics transcendent enough, to sustain such slow development so, no matter how hard the actors try to make it natural, it just isn’t possible.

The second problem is that the score doesn’t present a cohesive vision. In Phantom, the composition style was operatic and the “performance” scenes at the opera house were also operatic, because of the location. Here, the setting is a completely different musical world, one that can’t help but sound jarring when you pit its flimsier ditties against the richer sound of opera.

To further complicate things, Lloyd Webber undercuts his own melodies. Rather than building them to soaring heights in an upward trajectory, something he so beautifully did in Phantom, in Love Never Dies he repeatedly uses descending falling phrases that stifle the bloom in the voice. Even his title song, the pièce de résistance for Christine, is full of such phrases. Happily, when Picerno finally does get to let loose in the upper stratosphere of her range it is the kind of luscious soprano magic that makes audiences swell with applause.

Meghan Picerno

David Cullen and Lloyd Webber’s orchestrations are rich and full and the orchestra, led by music director/conductor Dale Rieling, sounds superb.

Though this alternate reality for the Phantom and Christine may ultimately disappoint the discerning musical lover, the visual extravagance and vocal virtuosity of the piece will not. Those riches are fully on display.

*Additional lyrics by Charles Hart

April 4 – 22, 2018
Hollywood Pantages Theatre
6233 Hollywood Blvd, 
Los Angeles, CA 90028
Tickets and more info: www.hollywoodpantages.com or 800-982-2787

Mary Michael Patterson and the ensemble

L-R: Mary Michael Patterson, Meghan Picerno, Karen Mason and Sean Thompson 

Richard Koons, Katrina Kemp, and Stephen Petrovich 

Casey Lyons and Gardar Thor Cortes

Sean Thompson and Gardar Thor Cortes

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