Artsmash Critic Tim Smith covers classical music, theater and visual arts in Baltimore and beyond

'Love Never Dies' proves to be a worthy sequel to 'Phantom of the Opera' in Baltimore preview performances

Tim Smith
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

No crashing chandelier. No need for one. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Love Never Dies,” the sequel to “The Phantom of the Opera,” offers its own distinctive attractions, visual and musical.

Judging by opening night of a preview week at Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre, the work is going to have little trouble engaging audiences once it officially opens Oct. 25 in Detroit.

To borrow a line from the show: “Yes, I know there were some snags; there are moments where it lags.” But that proved of little consequence given how many things did click neatly into place on Tuesday. (If I hadn’t been told a piece of scenery was missing — it’s being repaired — I wouldn’t have noticed.)

This handsomely designed musical seemed already in good shape, after having only four performances in upstate New York before reaching Baltimore. (Producers discouraged reviews because the production is still in early stages.)

“Love Never Dies” experienced a rough birth in London seven years ago, but, after tweaking, resurfaced in Australia in 2011 and found more favor. That success led to stagings in Japan, Germany and, now, our shores.

Fervid “Phantom” fans may never accept the notion of a sequel, or this particular one, which is set in 1907 New York and finds the scourge of the Paris Opera House now running Phantasma, a colorful amusement complex at Coney Island.

But the plot works well enough (Webber, Ben Elton, Glenn Slater and Frederick Forsyth share credit for the book; Slater and Charles Hart for the lyrics), especially so in creating a dramatically plausible way to bring the characters from the original back together.

Remember Christine Daae, the aspiring soprano who attracted that masked fan in Paris? She’s a full-fledged star now, one who can’t refuse an offer to appear at Oscar Hammerstein’s new Manhattan Opera House. (That factual, short-lived venture by the grandfather of lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II opened in 1906 and boasted some of the greatest singers of the day.)

Of course, it’s a bogus invitation, really sent by the Phantom, who’s starved for the opportunity to hear Christine sing again. The soprano’s husband — remember sweet, brave Raoul? — doesn’t take kindly to these machinations, as you might expect; and he’s a bit of a loser as a husband, which you might not (Christine’s “music has always been a mystery to me,” he says).

Oh, yes, and (spoiler alert) there’s a little boy, Gustave, as old as the number of years since Christine last saw the Phantom. Add in the needy ingenue Meg Giry, ever hopeful of winning the Phantom’s esteem, and her moody mother, Madame Giry, and you have the ingredients for a serviceable little melodrama.

You may find some of the scenario too melodramatic, as I did, or some plot details unconvincing. But all I ask of you is that you give Lloyd Webber’s music an open-eared listening. There’s some wonderful stuff here, more than enough to offset any reservations about characters, motivations and actions.

It helps if you’re already fond of operetta. “Love Never Dies” sounds like a hearty homage to that vintage art, infused with the spirit of Victor Herbert and Franz Lehar.

Although hints of the “Phantom” score are woven into this one, Lloyd Webber knows better than to milk that cash cow again. Instead, we get lots of fresh ideas, many set to disarming waltz rhythms, and lush orchestrations. (A “Phantom”-esque pop/rock burst, when Gustave is shown the wildest parts of Phantasma, doesn’t quite fit with the rest.)

“The Coney Island Waltz,” which sets the scene for the Phantom’s new environs and tellingly reappears throughout the show, is a particular gem, with a beguiling, slightly eerie tune and shifting harmonies.

Other highlights include “Dear Old Friend,” an old-fashioned charmer, and the edgy duet for Phantom and Raoul, “Devil Take the Hindmost.” Lloyd Webber even carries off a vaudeville number (“Bathing Beauty”) with flair.

But for sheer ear-worm pleasure, the title song, the one Christine finally agrees to perform at Phantasma, stands out for its melodic elegance (too bad the lyrics are commonplace).

I won’t give away the ending of “Love Never Dies,” except to note that it comes with some of the most subtle, tender music I’ve heard from Lloyd Webber, enriching the final moments.

Heading the touring cast, directed by Simon Phillips, is Gardar Thor Cortes as a sympathetic Phantom. His rapid vibrato works to intensify emotions (there are many of them). If his low register weakens, the rest of the voice is solid, the phrasing always sensitive. He’s a dynamic actor, too, though not helped by having to make hackneyed, Dracula-like entrances.

In the role of Christine, Meghan Picerno offers persuasive acting and a voice well above the usual music theater level in tonal sheen and technical finesse. Her eloquent singing of the title song is a major highlight.

Sean Thompson summons considerable nuance, musical and theatrical, as Raoul; his account of the revealing lament “Why Does She Love Me?” is incisively sung. Mary Michael Patterson shines as Meg.

Done up like Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers in the 1940 movie “Rebecca”* (or is it Vicki Lawrence’s parody on “The Carol Burnett Show”?), Karen Mason nonetheless delivers the goods as Madame Giry.

Sweet-voiced Casey J. Lyons gives an assured performance as Gustave. And the supporting ensemble does spirited work, nimbly carrying out Graeme Murphy’s mostly interesting choreography. Conductor Dale Rieling guides the score fluently and draws polished work from the orchestra.

Gabriela Tylesova’s** sets — including a neat illusion of a roller coaster amid the bright, alluring lights of Coney Island — and her equally detailed costumes provide continual fuel for the musical. Nick Schlieper’s lighting adds the finishing touch.

“Love Never Dies” may not surpass its precursor in the affections of theatergoers, but it makes a worthy addition to Lloyd Webber’s canon. There’s something about it that holds everything together. I think it’s called heart.

If you go

“Love Never Dies” runs through Sunday at the Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St.. Tickets are $38.25 to $213.25. Call 410-547-7328, or go to ticketmaster.com.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

twitter.com/clefnotes

Corrections: *A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the movie that features the character Mrs. Danvers. It is “Rebecca.” **A previous version of this article also misspelled the name of the set designer. It's Gabriela Tylesova. The Sun regrets the errors.
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