Love never dies, unfortunately for everyone in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s sequel to “The Phantom of the Opera” by the same name.
While the production May 29 at the Bushnell was musically phenomenal, the story line – written by Ben Elton and based on Frederick Forsyth’s “The Phantom of Manhattan” – takes some liberties that create a disconnect from its predecessor. For one, apparently soprano opera muse Christine Daae and the Phantom conceived a child together 10 years back even though the only real time they spent together was during her brief abduction.
The new musical, in true opera form, has a love triangle, a woman foolishly enamored with a man who terrorizes her, jealousy, tragedy, and death.
Every character is flawed in a way that, although human, seems inconsistent with the resolution of “Phantom.” The only one who has redeeming qualities is Christian Harmston’s Gustave, Daae’s pure, adorable, and musically gifted son. His voice was clear and beautiful. While he didn’t go for the highest note in the original “Phantom” theme song, he probably could have hit it well.
Meghan Picerno is exquisite and elegant as Daae and she sings with stunning vibrato and power, but this version of Christine is certainly not an icon of female empowerment. You can’t help but see her as weak. Even though the Phantom obsesses over her in a creepily possessive and controlling way, often frightening her, she has deep undying suppressed love for him. Stockholm syndrome maybe? Though, in an era of “me too,” maybe it’s not fair to be so hard on her because she may be a victim, but it’s hard to tell if that’s an intended characterization of her.
Nonetheless, she lacks the purity that makes her so likable in “Phantom.” Raoul (Sean Thompson), who Christine chooses over the Phantom in the original and marries, references her high, expensive standards he can’t live up to, making her sound shallow and materialistic. The only endearing moments for her character are when we see her with her son. Then we see a flicker of the old Christine we know and love with her gentle compassion.
Raoul also loses his appeal in the sequel, no longer the charismatic knight in shining armor who protects Christine like he was in “Phantom.” In “Love Never Dies” he is in debt, largely due to gambling. We also see a very jealous and insecure side of him as he questions whether Christine still loves him. He can be quite nasty and belligerent, drinking his sorrows away into the morning and snapping at bartenders who try to cut him off. Only toward the end when he cradles Christine’s dead body in his arms in tragic tenderness do we see a glimmer of the old, likable Raoul.
Oh, had I not mentioned it before? Again, SPOILER ALERT!
Christine dies! It tarnishes the story and takes away the hopeful escape we see for her and Raoul in the original. It really does kill the notion of a happily ever after — between that and her marriage rut. It doesn’t really seem to add much to the story either. And doesn’t that mean love does die? Maybe the Phantom will love her forever, beyond her death. But we don’t know that. And when he succumbs to his mortality, any remaining essence of their love will vanish from existence.
The only thing it does accomplish story-wise is create a delicate closing moment when her son looks upon the Phantom for the first time as his real father and touches his face as an apparent sign of acceptance. So, maybe the love that never dies is actually a father-son loving bond instead of romance. But is that moment really necessary? Are we really feeling sorry for the Phantom, who is even more of a lamenting, possessive, disturbing stalker type in this sequel? It’s great he now can feel loved by another human despite his deformed appearance and life of seclusion. But was he really looking for that?
Besides, he already experienced that in “Phantom” with Christine. But he clearly didn’t learn something, backsliding further into self-loathing and despair in the sequel. But that despair doesn’t make him a victim. Instead, he has a mystical power over Christine and seems to feel entitled to get what he wants. It’s almost a “Beauty and the Beast” dynamic between him and Christine. However, she can never fully stop being afraid of him and we never seem to see the good beneath his tormenting exterior. The ending almost seems more appropriate to set a movie up for another sequel. But musical sequels are very rare. So I suppose “Love Never Dies” has that going for it.
Also, the way Christine dies, accidentally shot by her old opera friend Meg Giry (Mary Michael Patterson), is far-fetched. We see Meg is pitted against Christine as a competitor. Her mom, the austere Madame Giry (Karen Mason), certainly drills that into her head. Christine inadvertently threatens Meg’s leading lady stardom and position in the Phantom’s Coney Island circus.
However, her character seems kind and compassionate throughout the show and does not seem extremely rattled by Christine’s return or troubled at all. So it’s a leap for her character to kidnap Christine’s son and attempt to throw him into the water to drown before threatening to shoot herself. The only goodness we really see in the Phantom is when he talks her down from her hysteria to save her life. Then, when the gun accidentally goes off and fires a fatal bullet at Christine, she clearly feels sorry for what she did. But she runs off like she’s guilty so that last sequence denies her from being pure of heart and one of the only likable protagonists. We do see human compassion emerge from her mother though when they initially suspect she abducted Gustave and she shows concern before racing to help find him.
“Love Never Dies” maintains the Gothic decadence of “Phantom,” blended with an “American Horror Story: Freak Show” vibe. The circus element was both haunting and fun with many acrobatic interludes and lively sideshow performers.
With that being said the flaws in the story line are not the fault of the cast and the production team. They did very well with what they had to work with, particularly considering how challenging the music of a Webber score can be.
Where the story and characters are lacking, “Love Never Dies” is musically impressive with powerful vocals from Gardar Thor Cortes as the Phantom.
While you can hear a lot of the songs were a strain for Cortes and Thompson (Raoul) in the lower registers as they went a little out of tune, it was miraculous they were able to hit all the notes given the expansive range the music required of them. Nonetheless the two male leads were otherwise strong vocalists, particularly Cortes who really fills the room and sings out over the orchestra. In that regard, you could see how his Phantom would be alluring to Christine despite his demeanor.
While Patterson’s Meg is overshadowed by Christine, her voice is by no means second fiddle. She sounds exquisite and even is very successful at delivering comedy through opera, which is not easy in such a dramatic style of music that requires a lot of serious focus and stamina.
Speaking of stamina, I was blown away by the orchestra and the instrumental precision. I enjoyed their interludes just as much as the lyrical pieces. It takes one thing for a singer to hit all the notes, rhythm, and expression of a song, but it is even more difficult for multiple instruments played by several different people to attain the same unified accuracy of one person. They breathe life into this production and bring personality to the orchestration.
The songs themselves were very enjoyable to hear. Themes from “Phantom” are woven into the sequel. However there is scarcely a song that proved to be as memorable as an “Angel of Music,” “Music of the Night,” or “The Phantom of the Opera.” I can’t say that there are any songs from this musical that will stick in my head or that I will find myself singing at random. The only one that comes even close is “Love Never Dies,” as the title song should. However, all of the music is beautiful. It is just very hard to surpass a legend in musical history.
Despite the flawed story, the concept of a musical sequel is something unique that I hope to see a Broadway tackle more often.
The set was ornate, the make up was beautiful, and the show was ultimately very well cast.
He is still here, the Phantom of the opera. And we do still want to hear him sing as horrible as he may be as a human. Can we expect another sequel about the bond between him and his newfound son? I implore Webber to do something unprecedented – a musical trilogy.
While “Love Never Dies” has moved on from The Bushnell, the fabulous lineup continues. Next up is “On Your Feet,” the story of Gloria and Emilio Estefan. More information about tickets and upcoming productions are available at bushnell.org