‘Love Never Dies’ stirs the Phantom at Wharton Center
EAST LANSING, Mich.–In 1996, as a budding college sophomore, I splurged on my very first Wharton Center musical, “Phantom of the Opera.” Even from my seat in the last row at the top tier, I was overwhelmed by the massive size of the story, music, and sets. Twenty-two years later at the very same Wharton Center, again I was wowed by the same elements in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s sequel, Love Never Dies.
Phantom of the Opera opened at the top of the year in January of 1988 on Broadway and Webber must have know immediately that he had a timeless hit. This show has opened and closed both on Broadway and with the touring companies multiple times because audiences everywhere crave it. Surprisingly, crowds just love a tale of a mysterious masked man that basically kidnaps budding opera performer Christine Daae who ends up with a case of the Stockholm syndrome.
The original musical, based off of the book by Gaston Lervoux, ends with a huge fire and mysterious disappearance of the masked man. The sequel Love Never Dies, based off of the book by Frederick Forsyth called The Phantom of Manhattan, picks up 10 years later in America at New York City’s Coney Island in 1907.
As the story unfolds, familiar characters return with new but similar storylines. Madame Giry (Karen Mason) and Meg (Mary Michael Patterson) found the phantom ten years prior in Paris and hid him from the mobs that wanted him dead for the fire and the murders he left in his wake while trying to woo Christine Daae, the opera singer he literally took under under his wing. The Phantom decides to buy into the booming sideshow business in America, and the trio escape overseas and create the dark and macabre Phantasm, the Coney Island extravaganza with lots of singing and dancing to finally give Meg the starring role her mother always wanted her to have. A sideshow business makes a lot of sense. Now, the Phantom can walk around in his mask and not feel as weird as he did in Paris.
Also going back to the original Lervoux book, apparently the Phantom, whose name is actually Erik, bounced around a lot of circuses and sideshows in France and Europe making lots of money. He has still been pining for Christine, who married Raoul, The Vicomte de Chagny, Christine’s love interest from the original musical. Unfortunately, these two show signs of a struggling marriage. Apparently Raoul is a major gambler and lost their fortune giving them no other option than to travel to America and accept an offer singing for money at New York Opera House. Little do they know that the Phantom does some sneaky stuff and tricks her into singing for him, or he will murder her young 10-year-old son, Gustave. This sets the story off on many twists and subtle interesting connections ending in a shocking, yet unsatisfying ending.
In a world where sequels and spin-offs are often poorly rushed and executed, Webber took his time with this sequel following his award winning classic even though he started working on it only four short years after Phantom opened. Love Never Dies opened in 2010 and traveled all over the world. In 2017 it finally started its US tour and is currently back in Michigan at the Wharton Center here until Sunday, October 14. The Fisher Theatre in Detroit was one of the first stops in the tour where Webber himself came to assist with additional tweaks.
Webber doesn’t really call Love Never Dies a sequel. He says audiences could see this musical without seeing the original. I disagree. I feel that I should have even read the original book by Lervoux to even understand one of the plot twists in the show.
The musical explodes with an amazing orchestral bang yet quickly peters out when Bronson Norris Murphy opens his mouth with the opening number “‘Til I Hear You Sing” as the Phantom. It might have been a sound issue, but it was hard to hear his words above the orchestra. Fleck (Katrina Kemp) in the comedy relief trio of clowns, also seemed to have too a mic issue. But I was highly impressed at the trust she has to have for the other two in her trio, Stephen Petrovich and Richard Koons, because they swing her around and flip her like a rag doll.
For reasons unknown, opening night at Wharton gave alternate Rachel Anne Moore, a perfect opportunity to shine in the lead role of Christine Daae. Maybe Wharton has their own phantom and spirited away Meghan Picerno, the regular Christine lead. Whatever the reason, Ms. Moore took complete control of her opportunity. Her impeccable soprano voice hit every note with perfection, but if love is never supposed to die, I didn’t really feel like her emotional connections were strong enough with the male leads. Even after the namesake song, “Love Never Dies,” which she sings flawlessly, however it’s performed with her just standing still with the two love interests, Phantom and Raoul, in the wings watching her supposedly internalize her hidden love for the Phantom. The only way I could really tell this was by watching Raoul’s (Sean Thompson) reactions and as he storms off. If love never dies, would he really give up so easily? Especially after basically fighting with and making a monetary bet, a bet that the Phantom swears if Christine sings his song her soul will be his forever. The dueling lovers do this during the song, “Devil Take the Hindmost.” Moore did display a sweet and motherly connection to Jake Heston Miller, the young star taking his turn playing Gustave that night.
The set was my favorite part. A revolving floor utilized in almost every scene made transitions skilled and almost mystical at times. Not only to emphasize walking or movement, but also to display a carousel rotating under the Coney Island lights and rollercoasters. The constant use of mirrors alludes to the original musical’s Phantom’s hatred of looking at his deformed face. The mirrors are used as reflecting lights as in the sideshow scenes and even created interesting blocking as actors faced the mirrors with their backs to the audience but the audience could still see the reactions in the mirrors. The only questionable piece was the giant proscenium sized half-hearted replica of the phantom’s mask or possibly a replica of a mouth that sideshows and circuses had as entrances for their guests. It confuses the audience members. It’s one of the comments people who have seen the show always mention.
I was disappointed in much of the lighting. For a large scale Broadway show, the lighting was basic at best. Lightning was bland as two spotlights flash on and off. Lighting designer Nick Schliepher attempts to bring excitement to the “Love Never Dies,” song scene with the most random kaleidoscope lighting to liven up a long song, but just falls short.
Like many sequels Love Never Dies also has to deal with critics that say the original story was fine just the way it ended. But for those Phantom fans that loved the original musical, this sequel will not disappoint. The music in “Love Never Dies” follows the similar tunes of fan favorites and even songs like “Phantom of the Opera,” “Music of the Night” and “Angel of Music” reappear in this sequel.
Was it better than the original? It’s not better, but it does hold up its end of the story. The ending was a huge disappointment, but Phantom fans will love another opportunity to see the continued love story resume on stage. Like all sequels, will there be a prequel?