Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St.
When: through March 4
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Does musical theater really need a sequel to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “The Phantom of the Opera”?
Judging by the rapturous opening night audience reception of “Love Never Dies” at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, the answer is “yes,” definitely.
But if you ask me, the original deserves better than this grandiose followup with a preposterous plot and poorly motivated characters. Its main raison d’être is Webber’s swelling romantic score and songs (with mundane lyrics by Glenn Slater plus some by Charles Hart), though these are mostly power ballads and anthems belted out by performers with operatic voices. The few that depart from this norm stand out, among them the frisky burlesque-style “Bathing Beauty” and a competitive duet for Raoul and the Phantom entitled “Devil Take The Hindmost.”
The musical is set in 1907, ten years (we’re told) after a fire caused the Phantom to flee the Paris Opera House and pretend to be dead. This may be a little confusing to avid “Phantom” fans, since the main action of that show starts in 1881, but here the date is chosen to coincide with the opening of Oscar Hammerstein I’s Manhattan Opera House. Christine Daaé (Meghan Picerno), now a famous opera star, has been invited to perform there, though this turns out to be a ruse concocted by the Phantom (Gardar Thor Cortes) to lure her to New York.
In Webber and Ben Elton’s book, the Phantom is now a mysterious impresario called “Mr. Y” who presides over Phantasma, a Coney Island operation resembling a bizarre circus side show crossed with a vaudeville theater or Cirque du Soleil on a bad acid trip. In the Prologue, “Til I Hear You Sing,” we see him alone composing and quickly grasp that he’s still obsessed with Christine. He’s determined to get her to sing his song—which turns out to the the title number, “Love Never Dies”–convinced that if she does so just once, she’ll stay with him forever. Hence his scheme to get her to come from Paris.
Her husband, Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny (Sean Thompson), comes with her, but saddled with gambling debts (hence the importance of the fee she thinks Hammerstein has offered), he’s no longer the loving man of “Phantom” but rather a mean one who admits he doesn’t understand his wife’s music and who ignores his son, Gustave (Casey Lyons at the opening).
Or at least, he thinks Gustave is his son, though we quickly guess otherwise. The creators of this melodrama haven’t merely built on “Phantom,” they’ve rewritten it. According to this version, the Phantom and Christine were lovers, and she’s mad at him for not telling her for ten years that he was alive (we may wonder, too). In fact, as the swelling duets “Beneath a Moonless Sky” and “Once Upon Another Time” make clear, she still loves him. Never mind that in “Phantom,” he was a mad murderer she became desperate to escape, despite her initial attraction to her mentor.
This shift makes it impossible to figure out if the Phantom is supposed to be a man or a monster, and Webber et al don’t seem to know, either. One minute, he’s overbearing and threatening, even to Christine; the next, compassionate. Simon Phillips’ direction doesn’t help, nor does Cortes’ acting. Rather stiff and wooden in his black tux, he makes me think of a Phantom robot, and since every song is delivered full blast, there’s very little genuine emotion.
Picerno’s Christine is more believable, despite the implausible situation, and her performance of the title number lives up to our expectations, especially given her gorgeous satin gown and the glorious peacock backdrop (set and costumes by Gabriela Tylesova). Thompson’s role as Raoul is rather thankless, but his solo “Why Does She Love Me?” touchingly reveals his vulnerability. Lyons sings like an angel, even when his frightened yet curiously excited Gustave is led to the dark side of Phantasma.
Other characters from “Phantom” include Madame Giry (Karen Mason), who was the ballet mistress, and her daughter, Meg Giry (Mary Michael Patterson), who is in love with the Phantom and hopes to become his star. She was Christine’s best friend back in the old days, but the tensions in the quartet “Dear Old Friend” hint at an incomprehensible twist in the second act.
Reminiscent of several other shows, the staging brings to life a bizarre world of mirrors and dark magic with the help of Nick Schlieper’s lighting and Mick Potter’s sound design, as well as Tylesova’s sets and costumes. Our guides are a trio of engaging if slightly scary grotesques: little person Fleck (Katrina Kemp), Gangle (Stephen Petrovich), and Squelch (Richard Coons).
When all is said and done, there’s plenty of theatricality, singing, dancing, and pyrotechnics to enjoy in “Love Never Dies,” as long as you don’t try to make sense out of the story or the characters. Or the totally unsatisfying ending.