BWW Review: LOVE NEVER DIES at Shea's Buffalo Theatre
The Phantom of the Opera has returned to town, but there will be no familiar "Music of the Night." Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber has been penning a sequel to his blockbuster for years, and it has been performed in many versions, as LOVE NEVER DIES. Buffalonians may remember being titillated with the announced world premiere in Toronto years ago, but alas that announcement, as well as one of a Broadway production never occurred. London got dibs on it's premiere, then a reworked version went to Australia and now a new American tour is on the road letting the US decide what they think of the story.
Sequels to Broadway musicals have a poor track record, if ever even attempted. Remember BRING BACK BIRDIE (the followup to BYE, BYE BIRDIE) or DIVORCE ME, DARLING (continuing the escapades of THE BOYFRIEND)? Don't feel bad if you don't, only theatre historians do. But when you have a megamusical like THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, where virtually everyone has seen it, it is not surprising that the composer takes a stab at revisiting his beloved characters.
LOVE NEVER DIES takes place 10 years after the Phantom mysteriously disappears from the Paris Opera. Where he ends up is the unlikely venue of Coney Island in 1907. Ballet Mistress Madame Giry and her daughter Meg are now part of a side show company, yet again under the spell of the Phantom. His former muse Christine is engaged to sing at the opening of the Hammerstein Manhattan Opera, and she travels to New York with her husband Raoul and their son Gustave. In magical and mysterious style befitting of the Phantom, he weaves a spell and ensnares Christine to sing just one of his compositions one last time, and then will leave her in peace.
Webber has written a score with lyrics by Glenn Slater that can best be summed as a pastiche-- the familiar sweeping melodies are there, mixed with an occasional rock edged orchestration and a healthy dose of old school musical theatre kitsch. Where is succeed is in it's nod to old school operetta, where Christine sings like an angel to tunes that could easily have been written by Rudolf Friml. But such variations is style make the overall piece somewhat disjointed. Sir Andrew intermixes occasional leitmotifs from his "Phantom" score to good effect and has composed some genuinely creepy music for the freaks of Coney Island. But even second string Webber can literally be music to the ears for theatre folk yearning for some old school musical drama.
Happily, the singing is world class. Stunning Meghan Picerno is simply brilliant as the ingenue Christine, all grow up and looking resplendent. Ms. Picerno employs her crystalline soprano to full effect, while looking radiant in costumes by Gabriela Tylesova. She exudes confidence as well as an air of innocence. On opening night, the Phantom was played by alternate Bronson Norris Murphy. But fear not, he is fully engaged and capable of handling the role. Murphy opens the show with the heartfelt " 'Til I Hear You Sing," seated at the familiar organ. His voice starts softly but easily builds to the climaxes required to sell the song. Murphy does a fine job at placing his own stamp on the familiar character, imbuing him with a gentle humanity more than a possessed demon.
Broadway veteran Karen Mason is imposing as Madame Giry, and commands the stage fully. Mary Michael Patterson is all grown up as Meg, the former ballerina of the corps de ballet. Sean Thompson is Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny, Christine's lover, now husband. His brooding character is unlikable from the outset, but Mr. Thompson makes the most of it. Their child Gustave (played by a clear voiced Jake Heston Miller) becomes the linchpin that can bind Christine and the Phantom.
Director Simon Phillips has staged the action with an eye for detail, but the book by Ben Elton (based on "The Phantom of Manhattan" by Frederick Forsyth) is prone to melodrama. Outside of the opera world, Broadway audiences are not accustomed to fainting divas and room entrances accompanied by flashing lights and crashing cymbals, so snickering does occur. Coney Island is introduced by a trio of emcees, complete with a little person who is hoisted and thrown around like a rag doll. But with a nod to early 20th century theatricality, it ultimately makes for an engaging story. High production values rival any of those on Broadway today, with Ms. Tylesova creating magical Coney Island scenes complemented by shimmering arcade lights, by lighting designer Nick Schlieper. By the time Christine sings the haunting "Love Never Dies" the audience is enraptured by the grand sweep of the music and luxurious setting and costuming.
As to whether the story will hold up as well as the original, only time will tell. The drawn out final scene at times screams for some judicious pruning, but the ultimate effect serves the story well. With such lavish attention to detail and a brilliant cast, this LOVE NEVER DIES is a delight that should leave most Phantom fans satisfied.
LOVE NEVER DIES plays at Shea's Buffalo Theatre through Sunday June 10,2018. Contact sheas.org for more information.