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REVIEW: No Masking a Senseless LOVE NEVER DIES

REVIEW: No Masking a Senseless LOVE NEVER DIES
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

What the Cirque du Soleil?

LOVE NEVER DIES, Andrew Lloyd Webber's long gestating, highly anticipated sequel to his colossal Broadway hit THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, has finally been unleashed on Chicago. Dark, brooding and ever-so weird, it's a cross between Ray Bradbury's "Something Wicked This Way Comes" and a show from said French Canadian circus troupe.

That is to say its costumes, sets and choreography are eye-popping, but its lyrics and plot are at times indecipherable. The former can probably be attributed to some microphone problems in the first act, but the latter is insurmountable.

The show opens with the Phantom (a suave, but still appropriately menacing Gardar Thor Cortes) toiling away at a new composition in his new lair. Having fled from a Parisian mob a decade earlier, he now calls New York's Coney Island home and has opened an amusement park and carnival with the help of the ever so stern Madame Giry (a forceful performance by Chicago native Karen Mason) and her daughter Meg (Mary Michael Patterson). Meg has even claimed the spotlight as the top burlesque entertainer in the Phantom's vaudeville show.

The Phantom still pines for his Christine, though. He sings about how he longs to hear her sing again as a giant portrait of her hangs prominently over home. Love may never die, but sometimes you do need to let it go, dude.

The 10 years that have passed since the events of the first musical have also not been too kind to Christine (a lovely and enchanting Meghan Picerno). Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny (a handsome and haunted Sean Thompson) -the man Christine married instead of the Phantom-has gambled away both his fortune and her earnings from singing and is now a mean alcoholic. They have a son Gustave (Chicago native Casey Lyons at this performance, Jake Heston Miller at others) who longs for some attention and affection from his father.

Christine and family are brought back into the Phantom's orbit when Oscar Hammerstein (grandfather to one of the most famous Broadway composers) hires her for a gig in New York. Both the Phantom and the Giry's read about Christina's impending visit to the Big Apple. Meg and mom plot to keep her away from the Phantom (they have sunk time, energy and Meg's virtue into making the amusement park work and do not wish to be usurped). The Phantom dispatches a trio of trusted carnival performers --Fleck (Katrina Kemp), Gangle (Stephen Petrovich) and Squelch (Richard Koons)-to intercept Christine and family and delivery them to a hotel overlooking his amusement park.

Soon after the Phantom reveals himself to Christine, he dangles her son over the hotel balcony and threatens to kill her son if she doesn't perform for him. She seems more angry over the fact he faked his own death and didn't contact her for 10 years.

It was at this point I realized most of the characters in the show seem to be suffering from collective amnesia. One of the primary reasons the Phantom fled from a Parisian mob was because he murdered several people at the opera house (and ruined a perfectly good crystal chandelier). His bloodlust and stalker-like behavior were the reasons that Christine fled him and ran into the arms of Raoul in the first place.

This left me hoping for some on-set intervention that never came: Christine: please understand we are all here because we love and support you. Honey, that mask-wearing man whose music speaks to your soul isn't a tortured and misunderstood genius, he's a manipulative, psychotic sociopath. Oh, and the song he wrote ain't even that pretty.

Picerno has the operatic voice to do justice to the lovely arias that have been written for the character in the sequel (she certainly earned the applause she received for her vocal work on the show's signature song). Casey Lyons also has an amazing soprano voice and his scene-work opposite Cortes in which he demonstrates a musical kinship with his mother's strange, masked friend is probably one of the best in the show.

The score seems to work best when tantalizing us with a few notes or phrases from the original work. Of the new material, the show's title song is the best of the lot (this is not saying much). The quartet "Dear Old Friend" (sung by the Giry's, Raoul and Christine) provides some much-needed humor, but is too derivative of "Notes" from the original. "The Beauty Underneath," a song in which the Phantom and his assorted band of freaks tempt the young Gustave to "posses the hunger you can't repress" succeeds in providing a level of creepiness to things. Lyons owns the scene, conveying both a sense of wonderment and a hint of the darkness underneath the surface of his character.

Unfortunately, by the second act climax, character motivation and plausibility are stretched so thin, one realizes the entire show -much like its masked anti-hero, is just a tad bonkers.

Having said all this, I recognize the show is pure spectacle and if that proves to be enough of an attraction for even a third of the original's legions of "Fan-toms," the show will be considered a hit; one final thing that doesn't make too much sense outside of the realm of the Phantom's darkened theater.

LOVE NEVER DIES runs through Mar. 4 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph. Tickets $35-$100. Call 800.775.2000.

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