‘Love Never Dies’ fails as sequel

REVIEW

CLEVELAND — The first musical I saw on Broadway was Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Evita” — Patti LuPone, Mandy Patinkin, original cast. What a glorious introduction to New York musical theater.

I listened to “Jesus Christ Superstar” so much growing up that I think I could sing the entire thing with little prompting 40 years later. I have no desire to ever see “Cats,” but I think “Sunset Boulevard” is underrated. I even liked “By Jeeves,” which flopped on Broadway. “Phantom of the Opera” isn’t close to being my favorite musical, but I appreciate its spectacle and understand its appeal.

The reason for this rambling opening is to establish that I didn’t go into “Love Never Dies,” which opened Tuesday for a three-week run at Playhouse Square’s State Theatre, with claws out, looking to tear down the most commercially successful composer of my lifetime.

However, I hated “Love Never Dies” in a way that I’ve hated few shows.

It feels trapped by the legacy of the longest-running musical in Broadway history while making some truly bizarre choices to get out from under its shadow. Even the elements that are impressive feel misused. Director Simon Phillips’ staging is frantic and overly busy in the musical scenes to disguise the thinness of the work and over-wrought in the dramatic moments to try to invest the story with a gravitas it doesn’t earn.

The musical takes place 10 years after “Phantom” in the early 1900s in Coney Island, N.Y., where the Phantom (Gardar Thor Cortes) fled with the help of Madame Giry (Karen Mason). He feels at home there among the freaks, and Giry’s daughter’s Meg (Mary Michael Patterson) is the star of the vaudeville / burlesque show at the Phantom’s theater.

Christine Daae (Meghan Picerno), the object of his affection in “Phantom,” is a renowned opera star, but husband Raoul (Sean Thompson) is a drunk and a gambler and distant to their precocious and musically gifted 9-year-old son (Casey Lyons). The family is in need of money and travels to New York so Christine can sing at Oscar Hammerstein’s opera house, but the Phantom is willing to double Hammerstein’s offer if she comes to his theater and sings just one song that he’s written especially for her.

The offer triggers jealousy from Raoul and anger from Meg and Madame Giry, who both hoped the Phantom would groom Meg as his next protege.

The score whiplashes between faux opera and vaudeville-like numbers created to echo what would have been heard on Coney Island in early 1900s. At least that’s the pattern for most of the show until it gets hijacked by Trans-Siberian Orchestra for “The Beauty Underneath.”

The bombastic song is accompanied by all sorts of technical wizardry and eye candy — a swirling stage, moving ramps, giant chess pieces that illuminate to reveal freak-show characters inside them, garishly costumed performers.

This would be enough for most shows, but not “Love Never Dies.” The scene that made me think, “What the Phantom am I watching here?” adds a towering T-rex skeleton that is riding a horse skeleton with a human skull for its head. I’ll say “riding” because what the T-rex appears to be doing to the horse-human hybrid is a less newspaper-friendly verb.

The set and costume design by Gabriela Tylesova truly is stunning, so much so that it detracts from — or worse, is more interesting than — the story the musical is trying to tell.

In the second act, when Christine sings “Love Never Dies,’ the song the Phantom has written just for her, this should be the dramatic high point of the show. Christine comes out in this gorgeous flowing gown that blends into the multi-layered backdrop to create the illusion of a peacock whose plume fills the entire stage.

A peacock? What does a peacock have to do with this? Maybe they’re trying to say that the Phantom has written a song that lets Christine show off the full range of emotional colors in her voice? All I know is I spent most of the song studying the way the dress and the backdrop became one with zero emotional investment in the song itself.

The cast is uniformly strong vocally. They hit the notes, but they can’t overcome the inherent flaws in the work.

Less satisfying is the Phantom himself. It’s a challenging role. That mask takes away one of an actor’s most vital tools. Cortes has the soaring voice required for the character, but the best Phantoms have turned that mask into a mirror reflecting the character’s pain. With Cortes it felt like a wall between his emotions and the audience.

Maybe those who love “Phantom” will be satisfied getting to see their favorite characters again, in the same way moviegoers lap up lesser sequels, but I can’t think of a national tour that’s come to Playhouse Square that I enjoyed less.

agray@tribtoday.com

If you go …

WHAT: ”Love Never Dies”

WHEN: Through Jan. 28. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday

WHERE: State Theatre, Playhouse Square, 1515 Euclid Ave., Cleveland

HOW MUCH: Tickets range from $29 to $109.

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