The Phantom of the Opera returns to haunt Christine Daaé one last time in “Love Never Dies.”
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s sequel to “The Phantom of the Opera” is playing at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre until April 22 and is a dazzling spectacle of love and loss. The show builds upon the story of its predecessor by revisiting its dark themes of unrequited love and beauty masked by madness.
Ten years after the events of the original musical, Christine (Meghan Picerno) arrives in New York, where she is scheduled to sing at the grand opening of Oscar Hammerstein’s new theater. Under the guise of a pseudonym, the Phantom (Gardar Thor Cortes) lures Christine and her family to his new vaudeville show on Coney Island. There, Christine finds herself and her beloved son (Jake Heston Miller) in life-threatening danger when her loyalty to her husband Raoul (Sean Thompson) is challenged by an aching desire for the Phantom once more. Rather than recycling the story of its source material, “Love Never Dies” delves deeper into the impassioned, twisted relationship between the Phantom and his muse.
Although “Love Never Dies” is marketed as a sequel, it establishes itself as an effective stand-alone piece in the realm of theater. The return of many characters including Meg Giry (Mary Michael Patterson) and Madame Giry (Karen Mason) are celebrated by fans of the original, but the audience is unaware of what unfamiliar conflicts the familiar faces will be forced to confront.
Cortes methodically portrays the Phantom’s all-consuming love for Christine by embodying both aggressiveness and gentleness through his body language and singing. The rasp he infuses into desperate laments, such as in the introductory “‘Til I Hear You Sing,” contrasts with the gentler timbre of his voice in numbers like “Once Upon Another Time.” Similarly, his abrupt, frantic movements illustrate a frenzied passion, while his soft caresses for Christine depict a softer nature. The effect is a performance that incites both a sense of fear and a tinge of sympathy in the audience.
Twelve-year-old Miller also excels in his national tour debut as Gustave, impressively showcasing the pure voice of a naive boy untouched by the unrelenting darkness surrounding him. Picerno, however, steals the show with her hypnotic, operatic voice and her expert depiction of Christine’s inner turmoil. Her impeccable vocal performance carries the climax of the production, in which Christine must choose between Raoul and the Phantom. In the absence of any movement on stage, Picerno’s high notes, exuding operatic flare, soar to the mezzanine level of the theater and beyond.
Christine’s central conflict, however, does not entirely avoid cliches, such as the hackneyed trope of a love triangle and lines like, “How could you?/ After all that we’ve been/ Who are you?” Monumental scenes like the first confrontation between the Phantom and Christine could read as overly dramatic, but the committed performances from Picerno and the rest of the cast eventually sell every interaction.
While the final 10 minutes of the play bring heightened intensity, the spellbinding introductory scene is no less gripping. The orchestra begins playing with an abruptness and an urgency that triggers an involuntary jump in unsuspecting viewers; the jarring first musical note sets the dramatic, uncompromising tone for the rest of the play. The curtain then opens to reveal the Phantom, who leads into a powerful rendition of “‘Til I Hear You Sing” while playing the organ on a towering pedestal.
The grandiose sets incorporate elements of fantasy and realism – as seen in the bizarre rotating carousel figures and the lavish hotel room – to create striking visual displays. A giant carriage with red velvet seats and moving wheels and roller coaster tracks lined with bright lights that wind up and down the backdrop are just two of many remarkable set pieces that contribute to the masterful world building.
Eye-catching costumes, including vibrantly colored headpieces and feathered dresses, accentuate the whimsical world of the Phantom’s circus-themed show, “Mr. Y’s Phantasma.” The playful attire of characters, such as Meg, as she performs “Bathing Beauty” – which features multiple seamless costume changes – stands in stark contrast to the primarily black-and-white clothes of Christine, Raoul and the Phantom. The dichotomy between the costume design juxtaposes the blissful artifice that pervades the Phantom’s production with the dismal desperation that surrounds the love triangle.
The attention to detail that spans from the hue of the costumes to the intricately moving set pieces is enough to transcend the narrative’s negligible shortcomings. But the driving force behind the elaborate drama is the underlying notion that in order to realize true love, one must learn to love with the heart rather than the eyes.