“Why can’t the past just die?” pleads Christina Daaé near the end of The Phantom of the Opera, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s eternally unstoppable megahit. If only she knew how especially potent that plea would be 10 years later.
That’s where Love Never Dies picks up—a decade after an angry mob descended on the Phantom’s lair with torches, only to find his mask set atop his throne, no opera ghost in sight.
Part of the enduring mystery of The Phantom of the Opera has always been—at least for me—not knowing quite what became of him. If we are to allow Love Never Dies, the on-again-off-again-on-again sequel, to fill in those blanks for us (which it does beautifully if not quite always convincingly), then here’s what’s happened since: Mysterious ballet mistress Madame Giry (the indelible Karen Mason) concealed the Phantom (Bronson Norris Murphy) in safety until she was able to get him on a freighter out of France. Where’s an outlaw opera ghost to go without an opera house? Well, Coney Island, of course. Giry and her daughter, Meg (Mary Michael Patterson) set the Phantom up with his own sideshow—Mister Y’s Phantasma—and Meg trades in her pointe shoes to become the star of the sideshow’s vaudeville-style song and dance show, longing for the kind of attention and approval from the Phantom that her old friend Christine got a decade earlier in Paris.
Christine (Meghan Picerno), meanwhile, has become a world-renowned opera star, is now married to Raoul (Sean Thompson) and has a 10-year-old (gasp!) son named Gustave (Jake Heston Miller), who seems to have inherited her gift of music. But with her finances in turmoil because of Raoul’s gambling problem, she’s not in any sort of position to turn down a job.
So what’s a world-famous diva to do when the going gets tough? Accept a job in New York. Oscar Hammerstein is opening a brand-new Manhattan opera house and has offered Christine a handsome sum to perform at its opening. (This is not the famous Broadway composer, who would have only been 12 at the time, but rather his grandfather, who really did build Manhattan Opera House).
The Phantom catches wind of this and enlists a trio of his freaks to fetch Christine and family from the port, pretending that they have been sent by Hammerstein. Once they’re in his realm, you can probably imagine what kind of shenanigans unfurl.
You can count me among those who have derided Love Never Dies since the project was announced almost a decade ago, dismissing it as preposterous schlock that couldn’t get its act together. (A disastrous 2010 London premiere was essentially just that.) But Lloyd Webber believed in the show, went back to work, and opened the production in Australia a year later in a completely reconceived production directed by Simon Phillips. (That’s the version now touring North America with an eye toward Broadway, some say). I look forward to trips to the dentist more than I was looking forward to Love Never Dies.
But guess what? I was wrong.
Love Never Dies is more than good—it’s spectacular. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score is his best in a very long time, and certainly his most lush since 1994’s Sunset Boulevard. In many ways, his work here is more closely related to his cinematic work on Sunset than his soaring popera in The Phantom of the Opera. As is almost always the case with Webber, his lyricists are significantly less savvy than he, though some of the lyrical cheese here (by Glenn Slater) works better than it ought to.
Much of the success of Love Never Dies will depend upon whether or not you buy into the love story between Christine and the Phantom, which I never have. The Phantom of the Opera has always worked best as a story of unrequited love and obsession, so the notion here that Christine was madly in love might raise some eyebrows.
Although it would be easy to question giant swathes of the story, it works beautifully in that it unfolds like grand melodrama. The structure of the plot and the over-the-top story is actually more like an opera than a musical, so some of the vagaries are more forgivable.
Simon Phillips’ production is fantastically creepy and incessantly dark, and it may be the most expensive-looking and -sounding touring production I’ve ever seen: Gabriela Tylesova’s sets and costumes are breathtaking, and Nick Schlieper’s lighting is sumptuous. I find the Boston Opera House frequently challenged in the audio department but I caught every word here, thanks to Mick Potter’s terrific sound design.
The cast, too, is sublime. It can be a challenge to find performers up to the rigors of Christine and the Phantom—I have too often seen the roles either sung well or acted well, rarely both—but Meghan Picerno and Bronson Norris Murphy are splendid and intoxicating.
Love Never Dies also happens to be beautifully tender and—I hate this saying—a true feast for the senses as much as it is emotionally fulfilling.
I guess you could say I’m spellbound.
LOVE NEVER DIES. THROUGH 2.11 AT THE BOSTON OPERA HOUSE, 539 WASHINGTON ST., BOSTON. BOSTON.BROADWAY.COM. NATIONAL TOUR THROUGH 9.16.