Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Phantom Still Haunts: 'Love Never Dies' But It Just Doesn't Thrill at Coney Island -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Love Never Dies
a Phantom of the Opera sequel
Cadillac Palace, Chicago
Thru March 4

There is no stage musical for which my fondness, or lack thereof, has been more of a roller coaster than Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera.

When I first saw it, in 1993, on a national tour stop at Chicago's Auditorium Theatre before I was heavily into musicals, I was quite dazzled.

But after becoming an avid fan of the idiom, touring versions in 2004 and 2007 had me perceiving the show as a load of dreck.

Yet a revamped tour in 2014 wowed me from the get-go and I bestowed an effusive @@@@@ review.

My interest repiqued, this past December I opted to see Phantom for the first time on Broadway, in the Majestic Theatre, where it has run for 30 consecutive years.

I found it to have many great elements, but short of being one of the very best musicals. Its hokey shortcomings and inherent misogyny were apparent, and qualitatively the show just doesn't rival the similarly storied Les Miserables.

Given all these ups & downs, I guess it's fitting that Webber's somewhat ill-fated Phantom sequel, Love Never Dies, is set at New York's Coney Island amusement park.

And seeing it for the first time, Tuesday night via upgraded seats at the undersold Cadillac Palace,
was again roller coasterish.

Far less a commercial success than Phantom of the Opera, Love Never Dies received a critical drubbing when it opened in London in March 2010. And even with a vastly reworked Melbourne version now the touring template, there has yet to be a Broadway production.

Despite some lingering under-the-weatherness, I was fairly excited to see LND, especially with my Phantom-loving pal Paolo alongside. Separately, he too had recently seen the original blockbuster on Broadway.

But not having found time to fully ingest the Melbourne Cast Recording, and not having been instantly beguiled by what I had heard, I had my reservations.

So I can say that I was pleasantly surprised to find the music--including several different songs--to be rather nice. Not Phantom good, nor certainly Les Miz, at least on an initial exploration, but well-written (Glenn Slater is the credited lyricist though Charles Hart wrote some as well, with Lloyd Webber the composer) and, in Chicago, quite well-performed.

I won't take the time to regurgitate the storyline of Phantom of the Opera, but set in Paris in 1881, that show's masked title character serves as creepy Svengali to a chorus girl named Christine Dyer. Also factoring in are Raoul (an old/new paramour of Christine's), a shadowy opera matron named Madame Giry and her daughter, Meg, part of the troupe.

Along with the addition of Christine's son Gustav, in Love Never Dies this quintet finds themselves in New York's Coney Island in 1907, though we are supposed to simply accept that only 10 years have passed since Phantom.

And as the man in the mask, a swell singer named Gardar Thor Cortes begins LND by belting out a tune called "'Til I Hear You Sing" about his--yes, undying--love for Christine.

Let me say here that while the Phantom was--while back haunting the opera--seemingly to be seen as a tragic, Beast-like figure sweeping up Christine and her Beauty, even in more likable renditions of POTO I perceived him more as an obsessive stalker.

Hence, while there continue to be some fine songs--including Meg's "Only for You"--before and
throughout the weird rekindling of the Phantom and his prey, the first act narrative is disjointed, confusing and didn't cause me to much care. ("Once Upon Another Time" and "Dear Old Friends" are a couple other noteworthy first act tunes.)

Act II makes more dramatic sense, with the ever-present love triangle among the Phantom, Christine (a superbly-sung Meghan Picerno) and Raoul (Sean Thompson), some self-centered manipulations by the Girys (veteran Chicago cabaret star Karen Mason as Madame; Mary Mitchell Patterson as Meg) and the really likable Casey Lyons as young Gustav, whose father is for you to guess.

But though not an awful song, "Bathing Beauty" led by Meg early in Act II felt all too much like someone suggested to ALW that a rousing chorus number was needed, somewhat akin to the great "Masquerade" in Phantom of the Opera.

And ultimately, that's the biggest problem with Love Never Dies, whose title song is wonderfully delivered by Picerno, but had me jotting down "not as good as "Don't Cry For Me Argentina," "Memory," "You Must Love Me"" or other prime Sir Andy ballads.

It's not wretched, and far from the worst 150-minutes I've spent in a theater. But it's nowhere near as good as Phantom of the Opera, which isn't even that awesome itself.

For what it is, it's well-done on this tour, which theoretically could have Broadway aspirations.

It just doesn't seem to much matter, or to justify its existence.

I've now seen Love Never Dies. If you want to, go ahead.

I just kinda doubt either of us will be eternally smitten. 

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