The lights dimmed, the curtain rose, and a masked man in a tuxedo sang mournfully upon a raised platform, aching for his lost love. It's dark, dramatic, and by the end of 'Til I Hear You Sing I was enthralled.
The opening of Love Never Dies was exactly what you'd expect from a sequel to Phantom of the Opera.
At least, it's what I expected, but that comes with the caveat that I have not seen the original in the theater and had seen the movie once, shortly after it was released more than a decade ago.
And yet, I still thoroughly enjoyed Andrew Lloyd Webber's follow-up to his wildly successful musical. I had read before attending that the composer intended that Love Never Dies could stand on its own, and while a little knowledge of the original was helpful, it wasn't necessary. With its elaborate production and a sublimely talented cast, they could have been telling a far-fetched story with a fairly predictable plot and I still would have loved it.
The story goes that The Phantom, after faking his death in Paris, hightailed it to Coney Island and became a proprietor of a carnival. Meg and her mother, Madame Giry, accompanied him from France, toiling for Ten Long Years alongside the musical genius/sociopath. In addition to the Girys, he gathered a stable of performers who were at his beck and call. His three most trusted companions were Fleck (Katrina Kemp), Gangle (Stephen Petrovich) and Squelch (Richard Koons).
Richard Koons (“Squelch”), Katrina Kemp (“Fleck”) and Stephen Petrovich (“Gangle”) star in Love Never Dies. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Christine, who'd made her name as a renowned soprano in France, landed in New York at the behest of Oscar Hammerstein. Frankly, she needed the money. Her husband, Raoul, who had been her savior from The Phantom ten years before, had squandered all his riches on gambling and booze. As they disembarked with her son, Gustave, The Phantom's trio of carnival characters tricked the unsuspecting family into leaving Manhattan for Coney Island.
Soon The Phantom made himself known to Christine. She's like the poster child of Stockholm Syndrome, and even ten years after her break from her captor, she was still drawn to him emotionally and physically. Put them all together and the cast of characters was a sociopath, a drunk, a completely unaware diva, a scheming mother and an ambitious-yet-endearing wannabe starlet, and through it all they kept forgetting about the kid. "Gustave! Where's Gustave!"
Far-fetched, fairly predictable with a few unexpected plot twists, and thoroughly, immensely, amazingly enjoyable.
Richard Koons (“Squelch”), Katrina Kemp (“Fleck”) and Karen Mason (“Madame Giry”) star in Love Never Dies. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
That dichotomy is because the entire performance was magical, from the stern Madame Giry (Chicago-native Karen Mason), to the exuberant Meg (Mary Michael Patterson), to the petulant Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny (Sean Thompson). Meghan Picerno, the former-Chicago-area native who played Christine, has a voice that's simply glorious. When she sang the title number in front of a peacock backdrop, I swear my entire body had goosebumps for the last thirty seconds.
Meghan Picerno (“Christine Daaé”) stars in Love Never Dies. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Gardar Thor Cortes as The Phantom is powerful and commanding, almost enough to make you forget that the masked man kidnapped Christine and threatened to drop her son off a balcony if she didn't sing for him.
Casey Lyons as "Gustave" Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
And Gustave. Oh, Casey Lyons, you were stunning. This child, also a Chicago native, was phenomenal. His scene with The Phantom as the two discover the boy's innate talent is gripping and jaw-dropping. I'm getting chills, again, just thinking of it.
The stage is a fantastical Goldberg machine that makes scene changes a series of sleight-of-hand movements. The carousel was used to masterful effect, and while the choreography was complex, it was so smoothly executed by the ensemble that all you see is a thrilling, sometimes cacophonous, and consistently excellent performance.
Love Never Dies is in Chicago for a limited engagement through March 4 at Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W Randolph St. Discounted tickets are available via Goldstar.