BWW Review: LOVE NEVER DIES at Starlight Theatre
"Love Never Dies," Andrew Lloyd Webber's long awaited sequel to "Phantom of the Opera" has magically materialized on the massive stage at Starlight Theatre for a six-day Kansas City run. For those musical theatre nuts (like myself) who have hungered for more of the gorgeous Christine, the virtuous Raoul, and, of course, the tragically flawed Phantom himself, Erik, you may leave the theater with your appetite not quite satisfied. Hmmmm, you ask yourself, why am I still hungry? It sure seems like you should have had enough to chew on.
"Love Never Dies" is absolutely worth seeing. It is lush. The voices are beyond exceptional. Sets, costumes, and effects are haunting. The direction by Australians Simon Phillips and choreography by Graeme Murphy AO completely envelop the space allowed. The traveling pit orchestra conducted by Dale Rieling is as good as it gets. There are several, new, show stopping songs and lots of achingly beautiful echoes of the original Phantom score.
Ten years have passed since The Phantom (Bronson Norris Murphy) abandoned the catacombs that actually exist inside the real 1879 Paris Opera House. Christine (Meghan Picerno) has chosen her virtuous childhood love Raoul (Sean Thompson) over her musical mentor. We last saw the Phantom vanish into thin air only to have Madame Giry's young daughter Meg (Mary Michael Patterson) find his abandoned mask sitting on his throne-like armchair. Any aftermath is unspoken and left to the audience's imagination.
A young Madame Giry (Karen Mason) saved Erik (aka The Phantom) from sideshow attraction captivity. Madame Giry matures into the Paris Opera ballet mistress. She helps to hide the young Phantom from a brutal world and watches as a prodigious musical talent develops. He takes Christine under his musical wing and makes her a star.
Following the mysterious disappearances at the Paris Opera, Madam Giry steps in again and spirits a bereft Erik and young Meg out of France to Coney Island, New York. They buy a theater called "Phantasma" and fill it with oddities of all kinds. Eric and his mask no longer stand out. They prosper.
Meg falls in love with the idea of the Phantom and works to be his main attraction at their theater. It is not enough. Somehow, Erik's soul remains unsatisfied.
And that is the jumping off place for "Love Never Dies." According to the libretto, Erik discovers that Christine has come out of retirement to replenish her family fortune. She will sing in New York for Oscar Hammerstein. Raoul has become a drunk and a gambler. Christine struggles to keep her marriage and her family together. She has a ten-year-old son, Gustave (Christian Harmston and Jake Heston Miller (on alternate performances)) who is another musical prodigy. She believes Erik died back at the Paris Opera. No one realizes that Gustave is actually Erik's son, not Raoul's.
The show's opener "Till I Hear You Sing" by The Phantom (Murphy) is a massive start following an impressive overture. The production ensemble numbers are flawless. Erik still pines for Christine. When he discovers she is coming to New York, he must have her. I won't ruin the rest of the impressive performance by sharing what happens next except to say "Love Never Dies" from Christine (Picerno) is an Act II showstopper.
A lot of the music is familiar albeit with new lyrics. Big songs by characters from "Phantom" are flipped to the opposite character with new words. This seems somehow inappropriate. This show is closer to melodramatic opera with lots more recitative passages than in the style of the original rock opera.
The biggest challenge, however, is character development. These people are not only older, but their starting point as characters has changed. The saving and concerned Madam Giry has turned bitter and resentful. Meg was beautiful and fragile, now she is jealous and grasping. Raoul was virtuous, not spendy and stupid.. Christine was soft, malleable, and about her art and her love. Erik was a tragic figure (certainly with a violent streak), but someone who cared for others more than for himself. And that is what I believe is the fatal flaw of the sequel. We don't care for the people in the same way. It is why we can admire the achievement without loving the retold story.
Many times, very good shows land on the incredible Starlight stage and are dwarfed by the venue. "Love Never Dies" lives up to what spectacle can be at this incredible facility. Up until now, the LED video monitors above the stage, have been helpful but distracting enhancements to audience members seated away for the most prime seats. For "Love Never Dies," the system functions as one might hope it might. The action is so broadly drawn that you are compelled to watch the entire stage and the close-up monitors allow the audience to sneak a peek when necessary at lead actors.
"Love Never Dies" continues at Starlight Theater through August 19. Go see it and make up your own mind if it is a worthy successor to Phantom or just an impressive piece of the theatrical craftsmanship. Tickets are available online, at the box office, or by calling 816-363-7827.
Photos courtesy of Starlight Theatre.