Trying to capture the magic of a beloved musical theatre favorite like Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera is like, well, just that! Nonetheless, that’s exactly has been attempted with Love Never Dies: The Phantom Returns, onstage at TPAC’s Jackson Hall through Sunday, June 24.
While the redeux falls a bit short of the original, then again most things musical theatre do, that’s not keeping fans of the original from attending in hopes of recapturing at least some of the glory. To that end, thanks to a talented cast, some breathtaking sets and simply beautiful costumes, all is not lost for Phan-dom.
Love Never Dies was adapted for the musical theatre stage by Lloyd Webber from author Frederick Forsyth’s 1999 novel, The Phantom of Manhattan, a continuation of French novelist Gaston Leroux’s 1910 classic, Le Fantôme de l’Opéra. In the continuation, we learn, ad nauseam, that it’s been ten years since the action of the first story. I mean, in the initial plot exposition, if they said the words ‘ten years’ once, they said it ten, maybe twenty times. Weird, because the original took place in 1881 and the continuation is set in 1907…just one of many inconsistencies and head-scratchers for true Phans.
At any rate, in the decade since The Phantom first fell for Christine, he has escaped the tortures of unrequited love and traveled to the US Atlantic Seaboard, where he has become the artistic director of something that can only be described as a cross between a Ziegfeld stage production, a vaudeville act and a full-on carnival freak show. Set in the enchanting, yet seedy world of Coney Island.
Bronson Norris Murphy, who not only saw Phantom years ago at TPAC, but who from 2014-2017 played various roles in the Broadway production of the original, takes over the role of The Phantom for this first national tour and wastes no time in proving why he’s been cast in the coveted role. In the show’s opening number ’Til I Hear You Sing, Murphy fully reignite the passion of the Phantom legacy right from the get, and he does so bringing the majesty and depth expected…no, required for the role. To present what is undeniably one of the show’s strongest numbers right at the start is an interesting choice by Lloyd Webber, who wrote the music for Love Never Dies, with lyrics by Glenn Slater but it definitely works, drawing the audience right back into the romance and mystery.
Speaking of mystery, you gotta love a good tongue-in-cheek wink from Lloyd Webber, Slater and fellow play scribes Forsyth and Ben Elton, who cleverly dub The Phantom’s Coney Island troupe of misfits as Mister Y’s Phantasma…come on…Mister.y’s Phantasma…Mystery’s Phantom….I knew you’d catch on.
The Cony Island Waltz serves as an introduction to several of the story’s new characters, in particular, Dr. Gangle, Miss Fleck and Mr. Squelch, who not only serve as emcees for The Phantasm, but also, to a degree, as narrators to the audience of Love Never Dies. As the carnival-dwelling trio, Stephen Petro, Katrina Kemp and Richard Koons are the folks Baz Luhrmann and Ryan Murphy dreams are made of. Every glorious scene involving The Phantasm and these three scene-stealing performers—with spectacular lighting designed by Nick Schlieper, mystical set design and fanciful costumes by Gabriela Tylesova—put me in mind of eye-thrilling spectacles like Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge and Murphy’s American Horror Story: Freak Show. Worth mentioning, Tylesova’s clever marriage of backdrop and costume during Christine’s beautiful US operatic debut, while featuring the theatrically taboo peacock motif, is visually stunning. The same can be said for the vibrant colors and visuals of the costumes and sets adorned and inhabited by the carnival characters….just a feast for the eyes.
Enchanting, yet frightening additions aside, fully understanding fans of the original are going to want at least a taste of what drew them there, Lloyd Webber and company pepper this continuation with plenty of nods to the original source material. From subtle, but familiar notes played by the band welcoming Christine, to a certain tuneful music box, and interstitial music throughout the show, there’s hints of the beloved Phantom score.
The similarities don’t end there. The dramatic lighting, at times overly-dramatic subplots and even certain familiar phrases—YES, The Phantom once again refers to his nemesis, Raoul, as an ‘insolent boy’—all lend an air of familiarity while moving the action into new uncharted territory.
Something else Phans want…and get…a reunion between The Phantom and Christine. Perfectly matching Murphy’s talent and proving some powerful on-stage chemistry, Meghan Picerno takes on the iconic role of Christine with equal parts gusto, heart and talent. We first meet Christine when, now Paris’ premiere opera diva, her husband, Raoul (drunkenly, devilishly played by Sean Thompson) decide to travel to the US with their son, Gustave (alternately played on tour by Jake Heston Miller and Christian Harmston) when summoned by the great Oscar Hammerstein (that’s Oscar the 1st, the German businessman oft noted for popularizing opera in the U.S., not his grandson, the equally legendary musical theatre lyricist) to headline a New York opera. Spoiler Alert….it’s not Hammerstein who truly summoned Christine.
When she arrives, she’s greeted by the aforementioned sideshow trio who take her and her family to a magnificently opulent hotel to await their meeting with Hammerstein. It’s then, several scenes into the play that the audience truly experiences the glory of Picerno’s vocal skills, a scene that includes five, yes, five musical numbers. Among them, Look With Your Heart, without a doubt, the moral of the story. Presented with a kindness and understanding the would naturally befall the character in motherhood. Her scenes with Miller (who was playing young Gustave on opening night of the Nashville leg of the tour) were simply lovely. Equally Phantasic, whenever Christine and The Phantom duet during Beneath A Moonless Sky and Once Upon Another Time, those chills return.
The initial hotel scene also contains what I, as a Phan can only call the the closest thing Love Never Dies has to its own ‘chandelier moment’, somehow bringing back the spine-chilling moment when the chandelier crashes to the ground in the original Phantom. When The Phantom revealed himself to Christine in Love Never Dies, I experienced similar goosebumps. Proof positive, even in a show that lacks in plot and truly earworm-worthy tunes, an icon is still an icon and when presented in the proper context, can induce sense-memories, regardless.
Further convoluting the plot, we learn that Christine, Raoul and The Phantom aren’t the only remnant characters from the original. There’s also Madame Giry and her daughter Meg, the two largely responsible for aiding The Phantom in his escape from Paris. In the decade since (see, now I’m doing it), Madame Giry has taken on the role of The Phantom’s voice of the theatre company, if you will. Meanwhile, Meg has moved up from chorus girl to headliner.
Cast as Madame Giry is Karen Mason, while Mary Michael Patterson plays Meg. Mason’s Giry is portrayed as staunch, no-nonsense and deliciously evil. Meanwhile, Patterson, whose credits interestingly include a 2013-2014 stint as Christine on Broadway in Phantom, plays the role of Meg with surface sweetness and more than just hint of Anne Baxter’s opportunity-taking Eve Harrington in All About Eve. Mason and Patterson shine during Mother Did You See? Patterson also provides one of the show’s lighter, but most enjoyable, moments during the quick-change fun of Bathing Beauty, a spot-on throwback to Florenz Ziegfeld’s Follies or Busby Berkley’s early Hollywood musical movies like Gold Diggers of 1933 et al.
Act 1’s Dear Old Friend is yet another fun number, but for a completely different reason, under the guise of a pleasant reunion, tension bubbles between Christine and her husband, as well as her friend/rival Meg and her mother, Madame Giry. Think Mame’s Bosom Buddies meets White Christmas’ Sisters. After all, keep your friends close and your enemies closer.
Act 2 continues what seems to be the stalled plot…will Christine sing and therefore reunite with The Phantom, or will she try to work things out with her drunk of a husband. To that end, Sean Thompson’s Raoul opens Act 2 with a two-part musical interlude. First duetting with Patterson’s Meg on Why Does She Love Me?, then a head-to-head challenge accepted between Raoul and The Phantom for Devil Take the Hindmost. The remainder of Act 2, save the aforementioned Bathing Beauty cuteness, drones on a bit with enjoyable, but forgettable musical numbers. Then things get back on track at the eleventh hour with the titular tune, Love Never Dies courtesy of Picerno, quickly followed by a virtual all-in Ah Christine.
Without totally giving away the ending, maybe love does die, but for die-hard fans, The Phantom, and all that goes with it, now including Love Never Dies, will live on in musical theatre history—with all it’s hits and misses—forever. But much like the uncertainty of love, and whether or not classic musicals should be revisited in sequel/continuation form, time is fleeting for Nashville Phans to catch the show and make up their own minds, as The Phantom and company from Love Never Dies will move on to haunt yet another theatre following five remaining performances at TPAC with evening performances at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, June 22 & 23, a Saturday matinee at 2 p.m., a Sunday matinee on the 24th at 1p.m. and a final Sunday evening performance at 6:30. at 8 p.m. Tickets to Love Never Dies range in price from $30 to $85. Earlier this week, TPAC announced special Rush Ticket availability for each performance at a discounted rate of $25. To take advantage of the Rush Ticket price, show up at the venue’s box office just inside the lobby at TPAC 90 minutes before showtime. CLICK HERE for tickets or more information.
Not in Nashville, but interested in seeing Love Never Dies? CLICK HERE for future show dates through the end of the year. Follow the show on social media at the official Love Never Dies site or on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
While Love Never Dies closes out TPAC’s current Broadway season, following a brief summer hiatus, and the always fabulous TPAC Gala, TPAC’s next Broadway season will begin with School Of Rock gearing up Music City with performances September 11-16. CLICK HERE for tickets, or more information about TPAC’s full upcoming 2018-2019 Broadway season. You can also keep up with the latest from TPAC on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.