Review: Love Never Dies (A steaming pile of theatrical shit)

posted by Jeff | Monday, November 27, 2017, 11:39 PM | comments: 0

I'm not afraid to say that the original Phantom of The Opera is what initially got me hooked on musical theater. I know, theater hipsters don't care for it, maybe because it's too popular, or whatever, but it sucked me in during my high school years, enough that I channeled that interest into minoring in theater for a year in college.

I finally saw the Vegas version almost 20 years after the show began its run in London. For the show in the desert, in a custom-built theater at The Venetian, they ditched the intermission, moved the chandelier stunt later in the show (where it makes way more sense), and made the venue itself an integral part of the show. I saw it there three times, and hearing "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again" literally brought me to tears the first time. It played so well for someone who had built literally almost two decades of expectations around it. I wouldn't see it again until the tour that opened our beloved Dr. Phillips Center here in Orlando, and the changes and tweaks to the direction, along with the reimagined set design, were pretty great.

So while I don't understand the haters toward the original, it's still a special show for me. The only thing that I could ever pick about it was the chandelier crashing at the end of the first act, because that's certainly something a venue doesn't come back from, and they start the second act like, "No big deal, let's do another show!" And hey, they fixed that in the Las Vegas run (and in the movie). The idea that someone can appear evil and yet have good intentions, the villain who seeks redemption, that's a classic story. That someone can be inspired by this paradox of a person is great stuff to explore. There's psychological weight to the whole premise, and the music and lyrics serve the story.

And frankly, they should have left it there, with Meg holding the Phantom's mask at curtain.

Love Never Dies has apparently been around for a decade now, in what could only be described as a big budget workshop. It did a West End run first back in 2010 (with Sierra Boggess as Christine, who played the Vegas gig that I saw), and the critics hated it. Then it did a run in Australia, and a few minor runs around the world, before someone decided it was a good idea to tour it this Broadway tour season... for a show that has not in fact played on Broadway.

Let me say this up front: There is a lot of creative love in the show, for sure. The sets, lighting and costumes are beautiful. It's visually a beautiful show. Remove the terrible plot, and you have a lot of energy put into making this a spectacle that would serve the story well, if the story didn't suck. As Diana put it, "Well, a lot of people do get to work professionally because of this show." I suppose that's a good thing.

But the story... it's absurd. I'm going to just load you up with spoilers, because this milk is so beyond the expiration date that it'll give you the shits if you see it. Love Never Dies takes place a decade after the original Phantom, where he had made his way to New York, where he hangs out with (or maybe finances) a vaudeville/freak show at Coney Island. Apparently, the angry mob did not catch him at the Opera Populaire in Paris. I guess US Customs weren't as thorough back then. He starts the show banging on his organ complaining that his musical mojo just isn't there, and partly because he hasn't gotten over the fact that Christine took off to, you know, not hang with a murderous asshole.

Let's be clear about something though... Christine humored him in part because she confused the Phantom for her father, a musician himself that inspired her. While she does kiss him at the end of the show, I never thought there was a sexual vibe there. In fact, he even says very clearly, "That fate which condemns me to wallow in blood, has also denied me the joys of the flesh." To me that says his wiener was also deformed or absent as his nose. Hold on to that... we unfortunately have to come back to this point. So again, whatever Christine felt for him, it was largely platonic.

Meanwhile, Meg Giry, the ballet/chorus girl and daughter of Madame Giry, who ran the ballet, are for whatever reason starring in and producing the Phantom's vaudeville show in New York. They were apparently not above fleeing from the murderous freak, and they helped him cross the ocean.

As for Christine, she became a big star, she married Raoul, and they had a kid named Gustave. But all is not well in the family. It turns out that Raoul is kind of a dick with a drinking and gambling problem, and this entire premise is established in two lines of a confrontation with the paparazzi as they arrive in New York so Christine can sing at some new opera house. And hey, since she's in town, the Phantom can't help but visit her (at which time she hilariously faints, and I may have LOL'd). This is where shit gets really absurd, because now she's all mushy around him and acts like she wants to hump him, which is contrary to the "friend or father" vibe of the first show. They spent most of the first act of that show establishing the allure, genius and charm of the Phantom, and now, in the course of two minutes, following a decade of marriage and child raising, suddenly she has a toner for him. And that's after he went on a killing spree, dropped a chandelier on people and threatened to kill Raoul. It's fucking stupid. But hey, since he'll offer more money, she'll go sing at his show instead, because Raoul's drinking his cash away.

Oh, but it gets worse... a few minutes later, the Phantom meets Gustave. He plays a few bars on the piano, and the Phantom is like, "Holy shit! He's a musical genius like me! Wait, are we related?" The answer is yes. The seemingly non-sexual relationship from the first show, you know, where he declares that he can't bone hot singers because of fate or whatever, apparently boned the hot singer and gave her a child.

At this point, the show has lost me. I was so pissed about the plot and its many holes that I couldn't wait to get to intermission (I also had to pee). So the Phantom declares his new purpose in life is to give this kid the chance to also be a genius. Meanwhile, the Giry's are like, "Fuck, well, I guess he doesn't need us anymore. We're screwed." Meg, the innocent child of the first show, is now a narcissistic and jealous freak, while her mother goes ape shit stage mom.

The second act is exactly what you think it is, because there's nowhere else to go: Ultimatums are made, and Christine has to choose between the murderer she's now so fond of, or the alcoholic husband, while the Giry's just want this whole clan to go away. So much so, in fact, that Meg kidnaps the kid and threatens to throw him off a pier to drown. The Phantom talks her out of it, then Meg pulls a gun to kill herself, and of course shoots Christine instead (more LOL's). Christine tells Gustave, with her last breath, "Sorry I'm dead, but the deformed dude is actually your father. Good luck with that!"

It's. Awful.

So let me at least go back and say that the stagecraft was fantastic. I pay a lot of attention to scene and lighting design, and I was immersed enough in the visuals (or maybe just distracted by the hideous plot) to the extent that I just took in the eye candy. I get why this show takes 16 trucks to haul around. It still doesn't make up for the terrible book.

This show has never been on Broadway, and it doesn't belong on a subscription series with shows that have. It's an off-Broadway tryout gone horribly wrong with a big budget. I have to force myself to believe that it never happened so as not to harm the love I have for the original. And the thing is, there are some good songs and wonderful choreography in there, but putting lipstick on a slaughtered pig is still bacon. It's not good for you.

You have to wonder how this didn't ruin Andrew Lloyd Webber, but I guess he was battling cancer late in the development, and that might be part of it. He bounced back pretty strongly with School of Rock, which seems to have generally great reviews. But then, he collaborated on that with Julian Fellowes... yeah, the Downton Abbey guy. Two Brit greats doing a musical based on an American Jack Black movie about kids in a rock band. If that's not artistic achievement, I don't know what is.

Anyway, don't see Love Never Dies. It really should just die.

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