If you ever wondered what happened to the Phantom, the beast who lived underneath the Paris Opera House, who was in love with a young soprano, and was brought to glorious life by Andrew Lloyd Webber to create Broadway's longest running show?
Well, lose sleep no more about his whereabouts. Webber's follow up "Love Never Dies," a project the composer worked on for 20 years, finds the half-masked man in Manhattan, 1907, ten years after his ambiguous ending in the original. He's moved to America, and owns a freak show on Coney Island, called Phantasma. As it so happens, his long lost love, Christine Daae (Meghan Picerno) has been invited to sing in Manhattan by a big producer. She's now a star in Paris, living there with her husband, Raoul, and their young son, Gustave. Any minute, she'll show up in New York, and, well, you'll just have to see what happens then.
Lloyd Webber's follow up opened in London in 2010, but closed just 18 months later. It never did make it to Broadway. It was reworked in Australian, where it played and that production was filmed for a DVD release. There are still rumblings that this may get a Broadway run, Webber may do some rewrites, maybe noodle with the ending, but all that's mysterious as Webber's elusive character.
For those who could never get enough "Phantom," "Love Never Dies" keeps Phan fans satisfied with over-the-top drama – who will Christine choose, her long lost basement dwelling maestro, who understands the pull of music, or her husband, whom she still loves despite his fall from grace as a drinker and gambler? And the surprise spoiler about son, Gustav! I'm not going to be the one to give it away.
Webber's score has some great new songs, and you'll hear the undertones of that famous "Phantom" theme song crop every now and again. Webber wrote the music with lyricist Glen Slater, who wrote the book for Broadway's "The Little Mermaid," "Sister Act," and "School of Rock."
The opening number, " ' Til I Hear You Sing" kicks off the melodrama with the Phantom behind a scrim, high on a pedestal, playing the ominous pipe organ as he dreams of Christine. Yes, folks, the Phantom is back.
There are more showstopping songs throughout, including the oh, so lovely, "Love Never Dies" and the music is intact with delivering that Phantom mojo, but the book itself (credited to Webber, Slater, Ben Elton, and Frederick Forsyth), well, it just doesn't have the spark. The carnies are less than likeable, and actually a bit creepy. When the odd characters are front and center in the Phantasma show, it feels as if the book writers took a wrong turn and ended up at Cirque du Soleil.
But we're not here for them now, are we? All you really want to see is the Phantom and Christine. Therein lies the problem with "Love Never Dies." There are characters aplenty that we're supposed to care about. Raoul (a dashing Sean Thompson) just wants to go back to being the man he was ("Why Does She Love Me"); there's Meg (Mary Michael Patterson, who played Christine in a run of "Phantom" on Broadway, according to her credits), a Christine wanna be, who just wants the Phantom to notice her talent, and Madame Giry (Karen Mason, who sings the heck out of songs, and steals the stage each time she appears) who has her own deep, dark attraction to the Phantom. However, the addition of the young boy Gustave (opening night it was boy soprano Casey Lyons, who couldn't help but captivate the crowd) adds a fresh twist.
Under the mask is Gardar Thor Cortes, a trained opera singer, who has created the Phantom of "Love Never Dies" to not even an inch reek of Michael Crawford, who made a career out of his role of "Phantom of the Opera." Crawford's "Phantom" had a wounded, sensitive side, while Cortes's Erik the Phantom is terse and tough. Cortes has a voice, though, and when the Phantom sings, well, watch out.
The favorite here is Meghan Picerno as Christine. She sings like a lark. And gives the command performance in the title song "Love Never Dies." She's torn. She's broken. She remembers days gone by. She only wants what's best for her son. This is the depth Picerno brings to Christine.
There are ups and there are downs in "Love Never Dies," but what doesn't disappoint is Webber's lushly gorgeous score. "Beneath a Moonless Sky" is enticing as the Phantom and Christine rekindle their passion, and the second act's "Devil Take the Hindmost" is a lively dual between Phantom and Raoul, where the the two actors duke it out musically.
All criticism aside, the master of musical theater (I still weep anytime I hear "Memory" from "Cats") knows what it takes to please a crowd, and whether it ever does make it to Broadway or not, "Love Never Dies" will certainly satisfy those who were waiting for the Phantom to rise again, and are looking for a night of theatrical escape.
"Love Never Dies" runs through Nov. 19 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 S.W. Fifth Avenue, Fort Lauderdale. Performances are 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. Matinees at 2 p.m. on Saturdays and 1 p.m. on Sundays, and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Tickets $30-$160. 954-462-0222 or www.browardcenter.org.