We aren’t all the best judges of our work. Tchaikovsky thought “The Nutcracker” would be forgotten, while audiences would adore the opera “Iolanta.” George Lucas insisted “Phantom Menace” provided better entertainment than the original three “Star Wars” movies.
So when Andrew Lloyd Webber told Parade Magazine “My best romantic work is ‘Love Never Dies,’ the more grown-up sequel to ‘Phantom of the Opera,’ “ I wondered if he saw this long-gestating project with a clear eye. The show has come to Belk Theater on the Broadway Lights season, and the answer is “No.”
Flashes of fresh melodic brilliance pop up through the first act, from the Phantom’s agonized “Til I Hear You Sing” to Christine’s fond duet with son Gustave, “Look with Your Heart.” The second act offers nothing substantial except the title number, which seemed to me like a grandiose parody of Lloyd Webber yet had some fans cheering each reprise.
But the plot! Ben Elton’s book makes nonsense of its antecedent and no sense on its own. The Phantom, who declared himself impotent in the original, now has a child. Christine, who pitied and feared this deranged serial killer, insists a decade afterward that her kidnapper was the love of her life, and their beautiful night together – during which she was unconscious, as I recall – brought rapture unconfined.
Though the original takes place in 1881, this one commences 10 years later in … 1907, when The Phantom runs a Coney Island sideshow. Famed opera star Christine Daae comes to New York with Gustave and husband Raoul, now a self-pitying, alcoholic gambler deep in debt. The Phantom kidnaps her again, demands again that she sing for him and again forces her to choose between himself and Raoul. He says he’ll murder Gustave if she doesn’t perform, which bothers her briefly. Soon enough, though, she’s swooning at his genius and back in love.
Lloyd Webber confuses “grown-up” and “grim.” There’s not one laugh or moment of lightness in this show. Love equals suffering for all, including Meg Giry, who crossed the Atlantic with her funereal mom to make the Phantom fall for her and write her a masterpiece.
“Dies” has three terrific assets. First, the stagecraft, especially in the disturbingly alluring costumes and interlocking metallic set by Gabriela Tylesova. (Dig that dancing dinosaur skeleton.) Second, an orchestra that makes a richly assertive sound for conductor Dale Rieling.
Third, the complete conviction of the cast. Meghan Picerno calibrates her big voice beautifully to give an aptly emotional performance as Christine. Bronson Norris Murphy sings heroically and moodily, though the script mostly requires The Phantom to be loudly overwrought. Nothing could make Meg’s behavior credible, but Mary Michael Patterson brings pathos to her; Sean Thompson does the same for Raoul, whom Lloyd Webber hands one throwaway solo. (Do librettists think sympathy for him would diminish affection for The Phantom?)
Yet over and over, “Dies” unwisely steps deliberately into the shadow of “Phantom.” Lloyd Webber quotes his own score, reminding us what a masterpiece it is; Elton mirrors its plot and characters, taking them no further. We even descend again into the Phantom’s subterranean lair, enmeshed in fog, for a noisily pulsating anthem. But “The Beauty Underneath” is to the title song of “The Phantom of the Opera” what a kitten’s squeak is to a lion’s roar.
‘LOVE NEVER DIES’
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1:30 and 7 p.m. Sunday. (At press time, all performances were scheduled to proceed. Check here for updates.)
WHERE: Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St.
RUNNING TIME: 150 minutes with one intermission.
DETAILS: 704-372-1000 or blumenthalarts.org.