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Music – Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics – Glenn Slater and Charles Hart
Book – Ben Elton, based on The Phantom of Manhattan by Frederick Forsyth

Bass Hall, Fort Worth

Director – Simon Phillips
Choreographer – Graeme Murphy AO
Music Director/Conductor – Dale Rieling
Set and Costume Design – Gabriella Tylesova
Lighting Design – Nick Schlieper
Sound Design – Mick Potter
Orchestration – David Cullen & Andrew Lloyd Webber
Design Supervisor – Edward Pierce
Technical Director – Randy Moreland
Production Manager – Anna E. Bate
Executive Producer – Randall A. Buck

The Phantom – Bronson Norris Murphy
Christine Daaé – Meghan Picerno
Gustave – Jake Heston Miller
Madame Giry – Karen Mason
Meg Giry – Mary Michael Patterson
Raoul – Sean Thompson
Fleck – Katrina Kemp
Squelch – Richard Koons
Gangle – Stephan Petrovich

Chelsey Arce, Erin Chupinsky, Julian Decker, Diana DiMarzio, Tyler Donahue, Yesy Garcia, Alyssa Gianetti, Michael Gillis, Tamar Greene, Natalia Lepore Hagan, Lauren Lukacek, Alyssa McAnany, Dave Schoonover, Adam Soniak, John Swapshire IV, Kelly Swint, Lucas Thompson, Correy West, Arthur Wise

Reviewed Performance: 8/7/2018

Reviewed by Carol St George, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

First, let’s get this out of the way: Phantom of the Opera is a tough act to follow. I know that goes without saying, but I say it because I think that the whole idea of writing a sequel to the longest running Broadway show in history may not be such a good idea. Yet Andrew Lloyd Webber says he’s “very, very proud” of the show, and it’s clear that the lavish production staged at Bass Performance Hall Tuesday night wasn’t just phoned in. So I must commend the tremendous effort. The lighting, sets, costumes, choreography, and visual delights are spectacular from start to finish. The cast sing their hearts out, from the leads to every person in the ensemble. The orchestration is pitch perfect and rhythmically flawless. The voices are beautiful. The music is as dramatic and operatic as Lloyd Webber gets. But it’s just not Phantom, and I found myself wishing it were.

How could any sequel meet the bar set by the original? How could another musical yield even half the number of songs remembered and sung ad infinitum since Phantom premiered in 1986? Another composer might have thought better of attempting it. But another composer isn’t Andrew Lloyd Webber, so there you have it. And what we have is “Love Never Dies.”

Lloyd Webber’s love for this story certainly didn’t die, although the show itself almost did. It opened at the Adelphi Theatre in London in March 2010, gasped for air amid a deluge of negative reviews, and closed in August of the following year. Then the show was retooled by a new Australian design team, revised thoroughly, and sent to Australia, where it was better received. Still, with few exceptions, critics did not gush, and the show has yet to make it to Broadway. Nevertheless, the opening night audience at Bass Hall had no complaints. Song after song was applauded with gusto, and everyone leaped to their feet at the end. I didn’t quite get it, because neither the music nor story approached the level of Phantom in my mind, but that’s just me.

I will say, however, that the show has lots going for it, especially if you’re gaga for Andrew Lloyd Webber. Set on Coney Island in 1907, the production sparkles with extravagant gothic splendor, exploiting the flamboyant, baroque feel of a carnival, thanks to Gabriella Tylesova’s set and costumes and Nick Schlieper’s lighting. The setting portrays Phantasma, the Phantom’s thriving burlesque and freak show. Except that the “freaks” are charming, especially the tiny Fleck (Katrina Kemp), leggy Gangle (Stephan Petrovich), and roly-poly Squelch (Richard Koons). Their comic antics relieve the melodramatic tone of the story and move it along. Graeme Murphy’s choreography is marvelous. The ensemble dances, tumbles, and climbs all over the Art Nouveau structures. There are carriages, turntables, and limber actors moving everywhere, and they’re all fun to watch.

What’s less engaging is how the story moves. Which is awkward. The last time we saw Phantom of the Opera’s central character, he was crouched in his underground lair before mysteriously vanishing, and the soprano he’d kidnapped had just been rescued by her lover. So what happened to that Phantom? And the object of his obsession, the beautiful singer Christine? And Raoul, her knight in shining armor? Well, in the “10 long years” that have elapsed (although it’s really 26 years, according to the original show’s 1881 setting), Raoul hasn’t turned out to be such a great catch. A drunk and gambler, he spends his now famous wife’s money as fast as she can make it. Christine has become a sensation in Paris, her voice as stirring as ever, and with Meghan Picerno’s lyrical pipes, it is truly beautiful. Raoul, played by Sean Thompson, is a loser but can still deliver a heart-melting ballad. Meg, the musical’s most sympathetic character, is Christine’s former friend but has become her upstaged also-ran. Mary Michael Patterson’s warm, lovely soprano fits her precisely. Meg and her mother, Madame Giry, played with accomplished vocal finesse by Karen Mason, have devoted the last decade to the Phantom, with Meg now serving as the Phantom’s main act and occasional prostitute, used to grease his business deals. The Phantom himself, despite his success, can’t move past his Christine fetish, and when Christine, Raoul, and their son Gustave arrive at Coney Island for what they’ve been duped into thinking is an invitation from Oscar Hammerstein, the Phantom kidnaps the whole family and holds them hostage, pledging to free them only when Christine agrees to sing one last time for him.

In truth, the Phantom is after more than her voice, and she’s willing to give it. In fact, she already has. The love that never dies is not between her and Raoul after all. In the original musical, when Christine touched the Phantom’s face (out of sympathy, we thought), we now learn that they exchanged more than a tender moment, and Gustave is the result. Many critics couldn’t abide the convoluted plot twist and character about-face. A few Phantom fans were not buying it, either. I overheard an audience member telling her party during intermission that she wouldn’t be staying for the second act. She should have. It got better. Whereas Act I starts with a huge sound and keeps building to near excess, the second act begins quietly, with Raoul singing a soulful “Why Does She Love Me,” which is a relief. The plot then continues on its weird trajectory, although at a less frenzied pace.

For his part, Bronson Norris Murphy as the Phantom has probably never sounded better. His vocal and dynamic range is exhilarating. And one of the most enchanting voices in the show comes unexpectedly from Jake Heston Miller, the boy soprano wonder who plays Gustave.

So yes, the story is a bit goofy, the characters seem to come out of left field, and you probably won’t leave the theater with any tunes dancing in your head. But if you love over-the-top staging, extravagant entertainment, and consistently superb singing, by all means go.

Love Never Dies by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Bass Performance Hall, Fort Worth, Texas
August 7–12, 2018