In musical theater, there’s one cliché that doesn’t hold true.
“You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”
Revivals, revisals and revivals of revisals abound on Broadway, in London and through the regional theater land.
That’s even true of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s LOVE NEVER DIES, the sequel to THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.
Eighteen months isn’t a bad run for any musical, but that London total for this PHANTOM follow-up was a mere 5% of the original’s run. What’s more, that percentage diminishes each day, what with the original PHANTOM continuing to hold court at Her Majesty’s Theatre.
(Indeed, POTO, as it’s been chummily acronymed, will probably run long enough to see the house renamed HIS Majesty’s Theatre.)
LOVE NEVER DIES was better received in a somewhat rewritten 2011 Australian production. This version is pretty much (but not precisely) what’s now touring from sea (Boston, where I saw it) to shining sea (four California cities) through at least next September.
The show now immediately puts its best musical foot forward. The moment the curtain rises on Act One, The Phantom is there to sing the musical’s best song: “‘Til I Hear You Sing (Once More).”
The “You” is Christine Daae, with whom The Phantom has a history (to say the least). He wants her to debut his newest song: “Love Never Dies,” which certainly expresses his feelings for the lady.
In London, 10 minutes had to pass before The Phantom told us what was really on his mind. Having things happen quicker is always a better solution.
Like virtually every sequel, LOVE NEVER DIES isn’t able to equal let alone surpass its predecessor. Nevertheless, appraised on its own terms, it’s a strong show. Lord Lloyd Webber originally noted that it could be enjoyed by anyone who didn’t know the original musical – and Lord knows The Lord is right.
(But is there anyone with even the slightest interest in musical theater who doesn’t know PHANTOM?)
LOVE NEVER DIES credits as its inspiration Frederick Forsyth’s THE PHANTOM OF MANHATTAN, his own sequellish-riff on Gaston Leroux’s original novel. Librettist Ben Elton, however, made the gutsiest move by re-inventing Raoul, the love-struck major character in PHANTOM. Ten years later, he’s a 24-carat skunk, drunk and gambler who’s lost a fortune that he should have used to provide for his wife Christine and her son Gustave.
(Yes, “her son Gustave,” not “their son Gustave” – which will turn out to be an astonishingly important component to the plot.)
Christine has become an acclaimed Parisian diva who’d be potently wealthy if her husband had been prudent. Now she has accepted an invitation to perform in America, which Raoul doesn’t want. Yet when you’re poorer than dispossessed church mice, what can you do?
There’s more than one snag that’ll occur with friends of yore, one of whom turns out to be an unexpected enemy.
Everyone concerned probably hopes that this tour will lead to a Broadway production. Such a move might not be wise, for PHANTOM, now in its 31st year, would obviously make a comparison inevitable, and LOVE NEVER would die in contrast.
One must also wonder if there is still enough contemporary appetite for Lloyd Webber’s extraordinarily lush and operatic melodies. PHANTOM and its score came at a time when this style of music was standard musical theater. Now, with the proliferation of jukebox musicals and rock-tinged scores to satisfy the Baby Boomers who have aged into theatergoers, this sound may be too rarefied for its own good. There’s too much recitative or music that sounds like it for much of today’s audience, and the songs – especially the title one – are virtual arias.
Meghan Picerno makes the most of them, and as much applause greeted “‘Til I Hear You Sing,” much, much more was given after she’d finished “Love Never Dies.”
You might not see why love hasn’t died a horrible death after you meet Raoul. The stinker is well-played by Sean Thompson, especially in his second-act opener when he asks the question we’ve been asking: “Why Does She Love Me?” Today’s audiences may not admire Christine for hanging in there, always forgiving, starting to rebuke and then censoring herself. Long before Fran Kubelik in PROMISES, PROMISES realized that “Knowing when to leave can be the hardest thing that anyone can learn,” Christine was living that same scenario.
Forsyth envisioned Meg Giry as Christine’s maid; Elton smartly made her a headliner but whose thunder might be now and forever silenced and stolen by New Girl in Town Christine. Mary Michael Patterson plays her very well.
Karen Mason plays Madame Giry, Meg’s mother, who could be a one-dimensional brooding, sinister, always-clad-in-black character. Mason finds some –nay, plenty – of humanity in her.
Mason also upends the bromide “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” Remember, she was to play Mrs. Danvers in the ill-fated (at least thus far) REBECCA. Madame Giry has a great deal in common with her, so we’re getting a hint what she might have been (or what she yet might be) in REBECCA.
Lyricists Glenn Slater and Charles Hart do well in telling the story in song, but one lyric desperately needs to be Americanized. “Devil Take the Hindmost,” in which The Phantom and Raoul lock horns, is a well-known expression in Britain that means “those who lag behind won’t receive any help.” In these United States, it means nothing, and despite fine elocution from the vocalists, tour audiences will probably infer that they’re singing “Devil Take the High Road.”
If you attend LOVE NEVER DIES and you find that the role of the Phantom, usually played by Gardar Thor Cortes, will be played by Michael Gillis, don’t turn in your tickets. He’s the one I saw on Sunday, Feb. 4 at 6:30 p.m. (the precise time the Super Bowl was starting; did Cortes take the night off to watch the game?).
Gillis gave one of those substitute performances that had the audience filing out of the theater saying “Well, the usual Phantom couldn’t possibly be any better than this guy.” Indeed, he was letter- and note-perfect.
The biggest surprise may well be the rather lavish production values. Not that Gabriela Tylesova isn’t a fine designer, but this is a production sponsored by Troika Entertainment. Out-of-towners who’ve endured this company’s tours know that its sets and costumes usually look as if they cost $1.50 or were picked up in the last half-hour of a garage sale. Apparently the creators of LOVE NEVER DIES aren’t the only ones trying to improve.
In the end, that famous advertising phrase “Will it play in Peoria?” comes to mind. Yes, indeed LOVE NEVER DOES will. Now, however, we must wonder if it will play in New York.