WARNING: This review contains major spoilers for the plot of “Love Never Dies.”
I love musical theater. This has been the status quo of my life for as long as I can remember. I seriously cannot even tell you what the first musical I ever saw was. This makes it hard to dislike shows (though I definitely have favorites). Even now, despite the fact I have been the Niner Times’ theater critic for two years, I sincerely struggle to give a truly negative review of a musical. I can always find redeeming characteristics and appreciate the opportunity to have a night at the theater, regardless of what the show actually is. These positive qualities typically outweigh the bad in my memory of the show. However, it seems I have met my match in the form of “Love Never Dies,” a musical which completed a National Tour stop at the Belk Theater from Sept. 11 – 16. It is, quite possibly, the worst musical I have ever experienced. I am absolutely baffled by its existence; how on earth did this monstrosity of a musical get past so many people? There are so many points in which someone, literally anyone, should have said “no.”
Let’s start, for instance, with the absolutely insane plot. “Love Never Dies” is the sequel piece to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s iconic “Phantom of the Opera.” Quite frankly, this fact alone sets the musical up for failure, as trying to live up to the longest-running musical in Broadway history is an impossible feat. However, despite the fact “Love Never Dies” is a true sequel, it completely disregards the entirety of the original musical. It has the same characters, but in name only. In this version, The Phantom (Bronson Norris Murphy) is a far more romantic figure — all the murders he committed in the previous musical conveniently forgotten — who longs to hear Christine Daaé (Meghan Picerno) sing again. He’s spent the last ten years living at Coney Island, where he owns a sideshow/amusement park called Phantasma with the help of Madame Giry (Karen Mason) and her daughter, Meg (Mary Michael Patterson). When Christine arrives in New York City to sing for the opening of Oscar Hammerstein II’s new American opera house, The Phantom sends his henchmen to abduct her and her family.
Family-wise, Christine’s love Raoul (Sean Thompson) is now a man with a deep drinking problem who rarely talks to or spends time with his wife. They also have a son together, Gustave (Christian Harmston/Jake Heston Miller). When Raoul leaves Christine alone to get a drink, The Phantom appears. Christine confronts him and is angry he faked his own death, while also implying that he was the love of her life. The Phantom offers to double the amount of money Hammerstein’s opera is paying her to sing and then threatens her child if she refuses to perform. However, when The Phantom spends time with the musically-inclined Gustave at the end of the first act (accompanied by a wild rock number that appears out of nowhere), he realizes that Gustave is his son.
If you think “Love Never Dies” can’t possibly get any crazier than that, you’d be wrong. It was at this point in the show that I completely dropped any semblance of viewing this as a work of art. I was just there to see where the story could possibly go, which is a much more enjoyable and fun way to frame this piece. Most of act two is largely unimportant, as Raoul and The Phantom battle over Christine’s affections without ever asking her which of the two she’d prefer. In the end, she chooses to sing for The Phantom, which results in her kissing the man in her dressing room before realizing her son has disappeared.
It turns out that Meg has been desperately working to achieve The Phantom’s attention in her role as the star “Ooh La La Girl” in his Coney Island vaudeville show. Upon realizing that, despite these efforts, he’d give the show/Phantasma to Christine and Gustave, she attempts to push Gustave off of a pier and into the ocean. While she is eventually talked down from murdering a child, she then pulls a gun out of her dress in an attempt to commit suicide. The Phantom decides to wrestle her for the gun and the resulting scuffle causes the gun to fire. The bullet hits Christine. She dies in The Phantom’s arms, using her last breaths to tell Gustave that The Phantom is his true father. Raoul appears out of nowhere to cradle her dead body. The musical then ends with Gustave reaching out to remove The Phantom’s mask and give him a hug. The people behind me started laughing.
The plot alone results in so many questions. Did everyone on the creative team forget what happens in the original “Phantom of the Opera?” Does The Phantom write the songs used in Phantasma’s sideshow and, if so, do you mean to tell me the genius opera singer wrote something called “Bathing Beauty?” When did Christine and The Phantom ever conceive a child? Most importantly, who is raising that poor kid now? Are The Phantom and Raoul….co-parenting?
Frustratingly, “Love Never Dies” really has no excuse to be this bad. It is not completely separate from “The Phantom of the Opera” and retains Andrew Lloyd Webber as a composer, orchestrator and contributor to the book. While Webber is the only member of the creative team that worked on the original, new additions Glenn Slater and Ben Elton also both have prior illustrious theater credits (though Frederick Forsyth does not). With Webber on board, at the very least, the music should be more memorable than it is. It isn’t terrible but feels overwhelmingly boring and familiar. Only the quartet number “Dear Old Friend” stands out, both during the show and in hindsight. Even worse, the version of the show that played in Charlotte is actually already rewritten. The musical’s original plot and staging in London received such poor reviews that huge portions were revisited and changed for the Australian premiere in 2011. It is this version that is currently on display for the North American tour.
Still, I must say that the show is not all bad. The set design here is incredible and truly beautiful to look at. The metal atmosphere creates just-the-right level of creepiness for a 1900s Coney Island sideshow and transforms easily to build new shapes and locations. It only becomes more impressive when its lights turn on. The costumes and props are just as intricate, from Christine’s dazzling dresses to a coach that mysteriously moves without horses to a giant skeleton dinosaur. Both of these aspects are credited to Gabriela Tylesova, who clearly has skill and a vision.
The performances here are solid as well, though they are drowned by the lack of cohesive plot and generally lackluster songs. Picerno works hard to make Christine’s ever-changing emotions believable and nails her leading solo, the title song “Love Never Dies.” Mason as Madame Giry sincerely looks like she’s enjoying herself playing the vaguely intimidating noblewoman while Patterson throws herself wholeheartedly into Meg’s vaudeville numbers. Murphy and Thompson (The Phantom and Raoul respectively) do the best with what they’ve been given. Quite honestly, the best performance here goes to Jake Heston Miller as Gustave. He can sing like an angel and is a great child actor. I sincerely hope he can use this musical as a way to continue to break into the theater industry.
It truly takes a lot for me to be as frustrated with a musical as I am with “Love Never Dies.” From a contrived story that makes no sense as a sequel or stand-alone piece to unmemorable musical numbers, it fails on almost every level. Its only saving graces, the production design and the performances of its actors, are completely overshadowed by the inane plot. It honestly feels as if someone paid an enormous sum of money to get the best sets and costumes possible and then hired actors to put on a performance of their “Phantom of the Opera” fanfiction. To date, “Love Never Dies” still hasn’t premiered on Broadway. It is easy to see why.