About 15 minutes into Love Never Dies, the national touring production of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Phantom sequel currently stopped over at the Hobby Center, I wondered if after all of these years I'd completely missed a key subtext in that first show about the disfigured genius who haunted the Paris Opera House.
As I understood The Phantom of the Opera, Christine Daaé was really into music and doing well with lessons from the Phantom, aka the Angel of Music, whereas he was super obsessed and increasingly stalker-esque. Everything rolled along politely enough until she connected with her childhood friend, Raoul, the Vicomte de Chagny. That's when the Phantom went apeshit, kidnapped Christine, killed some people, kidnapped her again, and then rolled out a "marry me, or I kill him" plot that compelled Christine to kiss the Phantom out of pity and compassion. He let her go, she married the dude she loved, and it all turned out great. Right?
Apparently not. It seems things were a bit more complicated, and all that time Christine was being terrorized by a crazy dude wearing a half-mask, she was secretly into it. In fact, she was so into it that we now learn in Love Never Dies that she and the Phantom even squeezed in some sexy time right after that whole bit at the end of the hit original.
But the dude cut out the next morning, pretended to be dead, yada, yada, yada, and a decade later the Phantom (played here by Bronson Norris Murphy) is running a freak show called Phantasma on Coney Island, and Christine (played by Meghan Picerno) is arriving in New York to do a little singing, circa 1907. (Everyone in Love Never Dies keeps singing about how “10 long years” have passed despite the fact that most of the original show was clearly set in 1881.)
Christine shows up onstage—the set design is cool, lots of metal mixed with Coney Island creepy but not nearly as remarkable as its predecessor—to plenty of fanfare with her husband and son in tow. And despite no prior indications of Raoul (Sean Thompson) being anything but a nice guy, he's now a drunk gambler husband. Meanwhile, it just so happens that their boy, Gustave (young Jake Heston Miller), is very musically gifted. (Do you see where this is going?) The plot shambles on from there.
Judging by the tortured production history of Love Never Dies, it's clear you can’t just slap the Phantom into anything and make a hit. The show opened in London's West End in 2011 to bad reviews and closed within 18 months. (Keep in mind Phantom just hit its 30th anniversary on Broadway.) Then the show was retooled for an Australian production that still wasn’t exactly good, but dealt with some of the problems. Now there are rumblings that this touring production, launched last fall, may be heading for Broadway.
All of that time and tinkering hasn’t turned this thing into, you know, something good, but the chance of Broadway does mean that it boasts a decidedly-good-enough-for-Broadway cast.
Murphy, who spent time playing Raoul on the Great White Way, has the pipes to sing the Phantom, and acquits himself well throughout the show. Both he and Thompson, this show’s Raoul (a thankless part if ever there was one) do some of their best work in the show’s two-dudes-competing-for-the-lady number, “Devil Take the Hindmost.”
But the main thrust of the story is focused on Christine and that musical kid. Luckily, both were fantastic. Miller nearly stole the show as Gustave, singing with a high, clear voice and buying into what was happening onstage, even if that required skipping along with the Phantom like it’s perfectly normal and not weird at all for a dude in a mask to pull you through a sideshow while asking you over and over if you want “to see the beauty underneath.”
The absolute best parts, however, belonged to Picerno, who sang the hell out of the nonsensical part of Christine, a woman with terrible taste in men who makes little real sense on an emotional level. A veteran of the New York Opera Company, Piecerno provides one of the few truly breathtaking moments in the show as her glorious soprano easily filled the concert hall during the title song—a “big moment” when Christine makes a choice just by appearing onstage. Standing there in an incredible costume (all of the costumes are stunning), Picerno held the room transfixed as the final notes reverberated.
Alas, then we were back to finishing this story up. The cast valiantly did so, and the ending left some people snuffling softly, even if I only wanted to go listen to Phantom again to get this stuff out of my head. And the next morning, I did exactly that. It’s still awesome.
Thru July 22. Tickets from $35. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby St. 800-952-6560. More info and tickets at houston.broadway.com.