Broadway mavens have always had a field day trouncing Andrew Lloyd Webber.
He's had his share of clunkers – Starlight Express, The Woman in White, By Jeeves, The Wizard of Oz – and he's had plenty of middling hits – Aspects of Love, Whistle Down the Wind, Sunset Boulevard. But to his credit, and his abiding place in theater's musical pantheon, he's had his lion's share of super-mega hits – Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Cats, Phantom of the Opera, and School of Rock.
He's also one of the richest persons in England, was knighted in 1992, owns a stable of lucrative London theaters, and reaps bags of cash in residuals. I don't think there's a world capital where some production of Webber's isn't playing. Phantom premiered on Broadway in 1988 and is still there, the longest-running show in history. Cats is ranked No. 4. Last season, he equaled Rodgers and Hammerstein's epoch-making stat of having four productions on Broadway simultaneously. He is known as the most commercially successful composer ever.
Sir Andrew gets bashed for his success and for his failure, but what he cannot be faulted for is his prestigious talent for melody. In any style – be it rock, folk, pop, easy listening, salsa, or plain old Broadway belt – he spins out lush tunes with endless facility. A superb orchestrator, his songs fill the theater with drama, intensity, and soaring emotion. (More often, his lyricists aren't nearly on a par with classicists Ira Gershwin, Dorothy Fields, Porter, or Sondheim, but we can't have everything.) There's always lots of music in a Webber musical, sometimes reprised instead of offering us new tunes to savor in the second act, but there's always that wealth of melody in the first hour, that rush of inventiveness to keep us listening.
It's no surprise that a sequel to the world's most successful musical would appeal to Webber. At the end of that show, the Phantom, now cornered in his underground lair, magically disappears from the outraged citizens descending upon him to rescue Christine, the damsel in distress with whom he's obsessed. So where did he go and what happened to the other characters?
Love Never Dies (2010), on its national tour via Broadway at the Hobby, answers those questions and many more we hadn't thought of.
Essentially, this production is the 2011 Australian retinkering, after many rewrites, delays, and more revisions following the lackluster London premiere. Love still hasn't had a Broadway run and may never see the Great White Way.
Ten years after the scandal concerning the Opera Ghost in the catacombs of the Palais Garnier, guess who's operating a freak show on Coney Island and is still obsessed with the heavenly voice of Christine Daaé? Our antihero (Bronson Norris Murphy). Guess who's a world class opera diva? You got it, Madame de Chagny, nee Daaé, soon to perform at Oscar Hammerstein's new Manhattan Opera House (Meghan Picerno). Guess who's still skulking around the perimeter? Oui, Madame Giry, the ballet mistress from parts unknown who has secrets yet to divulge (Karen Mason).
But after all these years, everybody's undergone a character transformation. The Phantom is soft and not so mad, albeit still obsessed with his former protégé. Raoul, Christine's husband (Sean Thompson), is a drunk and in debt, not the sweet noble ingenue we remember. Soot-stained Madame Giry still lurks.
Lovely Meg (Mary Michael Patterson), Christine's best friend and Madame Giry's daughter, is now a leading showgirl at Coney Island's pleasure pier, performing risque vaudeville routines (remember this is 1907) and apparently putting on private shows of her own for anyone who asks.
Then there's Christine and Raoul's ten-year-old angel-faced son, Gustave (Jake Heston Miller), who has a preternatural ability for music. Whoa, what is this? Could it be? Is he? What was going on in that subterranean chamber bemisted by stage fog and rising candelabras? When Christine was abducted and then punted across the artificial lake under the opera house, I thought she abhorred the Phantom and offered her hand to his damaged face in sympathy only to assuage his madness. I guess she offered more of herself than we suspected.
If you can get past this glaring, stuttering plot point, Love Never Dies, while not nearly approaching any level of Phantom's theatricality, possesses a hard-wired ability to please. Yes, there are passages replete with filler – all of the “freaks” scenes and most of Meg's Million Dollar Mermaid numbers – and there are inexplicable sequences with turntable pylons meant to dazzle, I suppose, but there's no spectacle, certainly nothing approaching the falling chandelier, no grand opera numbers, no cast of thousands, no grand vistas, and absolutely no mystery. Scenically, this is second-rate Phantom.
Yet, Webber works wonders. His music is robustly operatic with many whiffs of original Phantom motifs. (If you're doing your own knockoff, you might as well steal from the best.) Fragments of melody come and go until building to the show's socko number “Love Never Dies.” We've heard bits of it swirling throughout the score, but when it's finally presented complete, it's ravishing. Christine, in peacock blue flounced gown, stands in front of a peacock feather backdrop. As the music rises in intensity, her pin spot enlarges so the feathery background glows white hot. It's the best effect in the show, and the one most simple to produce. Picerno's rendition stops the show.
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Webber's been criticized for cribbing from opera master Puccini, but Love's musical progenitors derive from opera romantic Jules Massenet and operetta kings Sigmund Romberg, Fritz Lehar, and Victor Herbert. That's in keeping with the period of the story. Yet Webber remolds this Gilded Age sound and makes it his own, chromatic and jaggy, asymmetric and slightly atonal. It's unique to Webber. No other contemporary Broadway composer quite compares. He loves adding opera flourishes: quartets, trios, duets, dramatic arias. He's classical but down to earth, always with an ear to the popular.
The show may be bumpy and padded, but the performers are first-rate. Most are Broadway veterans of other Webber shows, and the training is evident. Though masked throughout the show, Murphy creates his Phantom through voice, and it's an instrument of gold. From highest falsetto through cranky bass, he smooths his way through the creaky dramaturgy. He may still be somewhat insane (yes, he threatens to abduct little Gustave if Christine doesn't sing for him), but he's really a misunderstood guy underneath his scarred face. Picerno's Christine rips the roof off the Hobby with her magisterial and volcanic soprano. She's a genuine opera singer and needs no amplification whatsoever.
But the big surprise was little Jake Heston Miller as Gustave. What a performer. What a voice. What a natural on stage. In the show's time frame of ten years passing, I can see him as the next Phantom. The show'll still be on Broadway, why not? He's got the pipes, the presence, that unquenchable showbiz pizzazz. Who knows, by that time there may even be another sequel.
Love Never Dies continues through July 22 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at The Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For information, call 713-315-2525 or visit thehobbycenter.org or broadwayatthehobbycenter.com. $35-$165.