Let's say you're a fan of The Phantom of the Opera, an admirer of Andrew Lloyd Webber's lush romantic melodies, that psychosexual darkness, those operatic settings, the crashing chandelier. Should you rush to the Academy of Music to see the new (retooled) touring production of Love Never Dies, the U.S. premiere of the sequel that transports the Phantom, Christine, and her now-husband Raoul to Coney Island?
It depends on your delight in spectacle and tolerance of narrative incoherence. The book by Ben Elton, loosely based on Frederick Forsyth's novel The Phantom of Manhattan, makes even less sense than the original Phantom. The songs are uneven. The mood is consistently doleful. Director Simon Phillips is not one for subtlety.
But the cast is vocally outstanding, the costuming (by Gabriela Tylesova, who also did the inventive set design) is gorgeous, and lighting designer Nick Schlieper's vision of Coney Island by night is breathtaking. A handful of Lloyd Webber's songs (lyrics by Glenn Slater, with an assist from Charles Hart) are knockouts. Overall, the show is ridiculous — but in a mesmerizing, no-expense-spared, car-crash sort of way.
In a character reversal akin to Atticus Finch's flirtation with racism, Raoul (Philadelphia native Sean Thompson, in excellent voice), the Prince Charming of Phantom, has become a dissolute gambler and violent drunk. It's not clear whether he has blackouts, but he does suffer periodic bouts of regret over his vileness toward Christine (the opera soprano Meghan Picerno) and their musically precocious son, Gustave (Jake Heston Miller, who will alternate with Christian Harmston).
The two-hour, 20-minute show opens with dissonant chords, musical quotations from Phantom, and a tortured Phantom (Bronson Norris Murphy, who embraces the role with gothic exuberance) pining by the piano over Christine, his musical protégée and lost love. Suddenly, her portrait appears, like a vision of the Virgin Mary.
As we're reminded incessantly, 10 years have passed since the Phantom was consigned to his lonely fate. The sternly Dickensian Madame Giry (Broadway veteran Karen Mason) and her daughter, Meg (Mary Michael Patterson, who could easily play Christine — and has, in Broadway's Phantom), have spirited the masked man to Coney Island. There he presides over a colorful sideshow, complete with freaks and burlesque acts — a pop-culture mirror of his former life. Like Christine before her, Meg longs for stardom and seems also to harbor feelings for the Phantom.
But it's no real contest once Christine disembarks in New York. The first duet between Christine and the Phantom, "Beneath a Moonless Sky," is a beautiful Lloyd Webber tune, with lyrics that sketch a deeply passionate (past) communion between the two. The intimations of X-rated intimacy don't square with the original Phantom, where the climactic kiss was the ultimate consummation, but they're essential to the plot.
In the second act, another electric duet, "Devil Take the Hindmost," showcases the rivalry between Raoul and the Phantom, neither of whom is any great romantic prize. It lays out a bet involving a choice that Christine must (once again) make — yet another deliberate echo of the original.
Picerno's Christine delivers the title song at full throttle in a richly decorated peacock dress, arrayed against a peacock backdrop. It's a beautiful image, but the song itself is dull and unconvincing. Love, of course, does die, all the time. And for all the enchantment of this visionary Coney Island, Love Never Dies can't quite overcome the hokeyness at its core.