3 Stars out of 4
By every measure, the Broadway in Chicago offering of Love Never Dies now on view at the Cadillac Palace Theatre is magnificent: Gardar Thor Cortes is operatic in his portrayal of The Phantom. Meghan Picerno is indescribably lovely in voice and person as Christine Daaé. Casey Lyons as Daaé’s son Gustave has the voice of an angel. Gabriela Tylesova’s set and costumes render an exquisite and compelling world both ingenious and disturbingly dark. Music director Dale Rieling has shepherded Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s self-quoting and song cycle-esque operetta score to stunning heights. But as Broadway is bitten by Hollywood’s sequel disease where every blockbuster “product” needs a spin off and every character needs to be serialized to further profit its creators, something has gone terribly awry with Lloyd Webber Ben Elton’s libretto adapted from Frederick Forsyth's book.
The Phantom in his original incarnation ( Phantom of the Opera) is after all a textbook stalker whose understanding of consent is non-existent, so one needs to question why he gets a second crack at Christine with this sequel. It is, in the age of #metoo, truly horrific to see a woman constantly referred to with the possessive article as if she is a piece of property. But here we are: set ten years after the events portrayed in Phantom of the Opera, Christine is now married to Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny, who has become a drunken gambler. Sean Thompson has little to work with in this script but manages to keep his Vicomte likeable even as his buttery tenor is heard too little—this Raoul is a far cry from the heroic and protective nature of the character in the original show. And Christine now has a son, the strange and sweet Gustave. The family is traveling to America where Christine’s debut should bring them much needed cash. Unbeknownst to them the Phantom preceeded them to America by escaping the mobs in Paris, bringing also the Madame Giry (a hard as nails Karen Mason)and her daughter Meg (a fantastically talented Mary Michael Patterson) and the trio have made a life and small fortune offering amusements at Coney Island. The Phantom’s freak show includes 3 characters that serve as a kind of Greek chorus leading us through this epic tale: Fleck (played by Katrina Kemp) Gangle (played by Stephen Petrovich) and Squelch (played by Richard Koons) This trio creates an evolving surrealistic tableaux that is beautiful, strange and creepy. The Phantom essentially kidnaps the family and threatens to kill Christine’s son if she doesn’t perform a song he has written for her. He remains the obsessed stalker. And the way Christine is written in this show, she has no agency--- drawn between a weak but loving husband and an abuser she seems unable to think an independent thought.
It comes out that Gustave is really the Phantom’s son. This revisionist bit completely negates the plot of Phantom of the Opera, because it rewrites their relationship as consensual. It ignores that he murdered several people who would not do his bidding and would have killed Christine in a heartbeat. And now she still cares for him. WHAT???? Then the Phantom makes a bet with Raoul that she will sing for him and if she does, Raoul must leave her. Of course she sings because the Phantom is threatening her, and Raoul departs. But Meg, jealous that all the Phantom cares about is his Christine and their child, has taken Gustave and is threatening to throw herself and the boy into the ocean. When the distraught Christine and Phantom arrive, Meg gives up the boy and pulls out a gun(an oddly modern one) fully intending to kill herself. The Phantom attempts to take the gun and
Accidentally it is Christine that takes the bullet. I cannot tell you how terrifying it was to have someone die of a gunshot wound in a play the day after another school shooting. In an operatic libretto from another century written by a man, I would accept the death of the one good character, a female, as a way to end a story. But even Tosca chose to throw herself off the ramparts. But in this century it feels misogynistic and tone deaf. Judging from the audience response, I may be in the minority here, but this story troubles me deeply, one because it uses characters as profit centers, not honoring who they became in the original play, and two because the violent and cruel obsessive with narcissistic personality disorder is the one alive in the end. I look to stories to make me feel that good will triumph over evil, and in our world now and in this show, it doesn’t work that way.
And so I am in a quandary: Broadway in Chicago has brought a beautifully rendered version of a popular production to our town. But how can I recommend such a deeply troubling tale? It is a better experience if you have never seen the Phantom of the Opera because you can come to this story with no background and thus it is less distressing. The stage craft and the performances are surely marvelous.
Love Never Dies is playing a limited engagement, Tuesdays through Sundays until March 4, 2018 at Broadway in Chicago’s Cadillac Palace Theatre at 151 West Randolph in Chicago’s Loop. For tickets and information go to www.BroadwayIn Chicago.com or call 1-800775-2000 or go to https://www.theatreinchicago.com/love-never-dies/9114/