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Andrew Lloyd Webber’s sequel to “Phantom of the Opera” had a troubled road to the stage. It’s not just that its West End run in 2010 was halted midway for extensive revisions and then re-opened with a new director credited. Or that the envisioned Broadway run was postponed a few times and never rescheduled.
Before the show even got that far, there was the incident in which Lloyd Webber’s new, prized Turkish Van cat, Otto, jumped up on the Yamaha Clavinova digital keyboard on which Lloyd Webber was composing the music, and deleted all the files.
The show’s producers finally elected to just circumvent Broadway, launching a maiden national tour in the fall which is now in residence at Boston Opera House through Feb. 11, courtesy of Broadway in Boston. Yes, we’re among the first Americans to see the once hotly anticipated show.
It turns out “Love Never Dies” is a highly stylish, colorfully rendered mess.
It’s gorgeous to look at, and there’s clearly plenty of money onstage. Lloyd Webber’s attractive score may lack the earworms of “Phantom,” but it has well-crafted motifs, many pleasantly emotive moments and all the sentimental swells you might desire. His diehards should find plenty to content them.
The numbingly rhyme-drunk lyrics, by Glenn Slater with additional lyrics by Charles Hart, are trite. (“Look with your heart, not your eyes/ The heart understands and it never lies.”) I mean, just look at the title of the show. Ben Elton’s book — based loosely on a novel Frederick Forsyth wrote after an earlier attempt to write the show with Lloyd Webber went off the rails — understandably shows the signs of material that has been pulled and prodded to death.
Mainly, the whole thing is just schmaltzy and preposterous. But to be fair: If we really didn’t want to see anything schmaltzy and preposterous, we wouldn’t have attended the sequel to “Phantom of the Opera.”
Did I mention it’s set on Coney Island?
Yes, it turns out the Phantom (on opening night, alternate Bronson Norris Murphy went on) was spirited off to America after all the unfortunate business in Paris. Ten years later, he goes by Mr. Y and runs a circus on Coney Island. When he reads in the newspaper that his erstwhile target of obsession, Christine (Meghan Picerno), now a world-renowned singer, is soon to arrive in New York to perform, he launches one last plan to secure her affections — or rather, one last plan to put her in a vulnerable position and psychologically manipulate her into reenacting past traumas.
That, of course, is the creepy heart of “Phantom of the Opera,” and now its sequel. Its title character is an older man who grooms a girl, allowing her to think he’s an angel sent by her dead father. The moment she’s given a chance to sing a solo onstage — symbolically blooming, if you will, like that single rose that reoccurs — he abducts her. Later he kills a couple people, has violent tantrums and vows to destroy her if she won’t submit. And yet the show is essentially a will-they-or-won’t-they tale.
“Love Never Dies” preserves that intense awkwardness. The Phantom is as much as a creep as ever. He blackmails Christine by threatening to abduct her young son Gustave, yet we’re later asked to root for his emerging bond with this potential hostage.
And he seems to be trying to hypnotize her into submission through his music. Yet as in “Phantom,” it’s all in service of a redemption arc for a misunderstood artist. The conflicted Phantom — make that Mr. Y — still strikes me not as an admirably complex character, but simply a poorly drawn one.
Yet the dashing Raoul of “Phantom,” now Christine’s husband (Sean Thompson), has become an insufferable jerk whom we’re immediately cued to dislike. It’s profoundly unclear to me just whom we are meant to root for in the manly joust over control of the songbird lady-prize, whom they each call “my Christine.”
The story asks you to suspend disbelief with distracting frequency, especially given that there are also references as specific as Oscar Hammerstein II. Its heroine is passive. The final crisis is triggered by someone acting completely out of character. And in the end, the big bad thing that the villain threatened at the beginning ends up happening, but played as a tragic triumph. It feels not like dramatic irony but like somebody is hoping we just weren’t paying attention. There’s the sense not of the creators finally solving the show, but throwing their hands in the air and finally just pushing it out the door.
But no one is sitting down for this show expecting a slice of social realism. And if you can put aside much of the above, it’s easy to get swept for extended stretches in this production’s glossy charms. There are a few stunningly rendered setpieces, particularly scenes featuring the monster ball of misfits who populate the circus. (Stephen Petrovich shines with icy charm as Gangle, the barker.)
I can't help but wonder about Otto the cat...
Gabriela Tylesova does remarkable work designing both the sumptuous costumes and elaborate set. For the latter, she employs a long series of smaller pieces that slide in and out of place (and sometimes revolve), while a large bit of scaffolding starts as a suggestion of a Coney Island rollercoaster and ends up decking both sides of the stage like a bit of urban sculpture. In the second act, the scenic elements begin to suggest German expressionism a la “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” enhancing the creeping sense that things have gone off-kilter.
There are truly wonderful touches throughout, like a foot-pedaled carriage that greets Christine’s family dockside and whisks it away to the Phantom’s new lair, and an archway based on the Phantom’s mask that sometimes frames the action. A set piece that revolves to display a series of carnival denizens is nearly a showstopper in itself.
As young Gustave, Casey Lyons is a wonderful find. He has a very natural air about him onstage and I loved listening to him sing. (Lyons alternates in the role with Jake Heston Miller.) As the Phantom, Murphy has that slightly gaspy, overwrought delivery you expect, and was in fine voice on opening night. (Gardar Thor Cortes will return for future performances.) Picerno brings an operatic flair to Christine (the title song is a showcase) and Thompson is suitably boorish as Raoul. Director Simon Phillips well deploys an additional 15-person ensemble, mainly kept busy as the circus folk with Graeme Murphy’s choreography.
So. “Love Never Dies” is quite a thing to look at and to hear.
“Phantom”-heads should certainly check it out. But I can’t help but wonder if Otto the cat was onto something.
"Love Never Dies" is at the Boston Opera House through Feb. 11.
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