A lone spotlight illuminates the stage, revealing a black-clothed figure slumped in despair over an organ. As he tips back his head, we see that half of his time-worn face is concealed by an object that has stirred the dark fantasies of musical lovers for decades: a bone-white porcelain mask. Music slowly swells, and we prepare ourselves to be transported to another world. This world, however, is no longer Paris. “The Phantom of the Opera” has moved on, and lucky fans in the United States were able to experience his new “music of the night” in a special two-night movie engagement of the musical sequel, “Love Never Dies.”
When Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber announced that he was penning a continuation to his most beloved piece of musical theater, Broadway aficionados were riled to say the least. After its initial London release, the discontent was heightened even further, as everything from the plot to the score was criticized. Lately, an Australian production transformed the show, tidying up plot holes and reworking poorly received numbers. American audiences viewed a recording of this production in movie theaters around the country Feb. 28 and March 7.
Our story picks up a decade after “Phantom” ends, by which time the grotesque genius has fled to Coney Island. While Coney Island may seem a strange setting, as a world where human freaks and oddities run free, it is the perfect place for his twisted appearance to become completely unremarkable. We are introduced to his newest creation, a land of amusement and music called Phantasma by its trio of guardians: the pint-sized fireball, Miss Fleck; the clownish strong man, Squelch; and the crafty ringleader, Gangle. Together, they invite the audience into the whirling, colorful chaos of Phantasma, over which looms the twisted frame of its roller coaster paired with a massive melting mask.
We are then reintroduced to the woman whose voice set the wheels of the entire tale into motion, Christine Daae. Transformed from a timid ingenue to the most celebrated songbird of her day, she has come to New York to make her American debut, accompanied by her former sweetheart — now husband, Raoul, and their young son, Gustave. Christine is horrified when the Phantom, who vanished completely after his love of her drove him to madness and murder, comes sweeping into her room that night. He implores her to come and perform a single song at Phantasma, ominously remarking how horrendous it would be for something to befall Gustave should she refuse. This decision once again sweeps the group into a whirlwind of deadly decisions and passions that will change their lives a second time.
“Love Never Dies” shows us just how much the horrors of the Paris opera changed things for the worse. Meg Giry, Christine’s former best friend, and her mother, Madame Giry, are now jealous and spiteful, and they resent that the Phantom, for whom they worked tirelessly to rescue and serve, blindly chose his love Christine over them. From the role of romantic suitor, Raoul quickly turned angry drunkard and gambling addict, doubtful of Christine’s true emotions. The Phantom himself, who became much more sympathetic in the London version, presents much the same angel-of-darkness vibe as before.
If Tim Burton had a hand in set design for a musical, it might look a lot like that of “Love Never Dies.” Phantasma holds a disconcerting wonderment, at once lively and poisonous. Painted smiles and clever tricks weave into a much more menacing aura. In particular, the secret underground lair of the Phantom is a shining nightmare brought to life with freaks encased in mirrors and glass; writhing, winged horse skeletons; and an ever-present misty haze.
Now, of course, the music. Of all the show’s songs, the best-known is “‘Til I Hear You Sing,” in which the Phantom pours out every ounce of longing and frustration eating away at his soul in the years without Christine. Later, in the back-to-back numbers “Beneath a Moonless Sky” and “Once Upon Another Time,” Christine and the Phantom reminisce about their time together long ago and imagine what may have been in a different world. The show’s most exciting song is “The Beauty Underneath,” a straight-up rock performance that draws listeners “in past the place where dreams begin.” Then there’s the titular song, a soaring aria sung by Christine, which, in saying how once the uncontrollable pain and pleasure of love are through, “love will still remain,” nicely summarizes her feelings toward the Phantom. While the score is quite good, there aren’t any numbers destined to be as classic as “Music of the Night” or “All I Ask of You.”
Though not surpassing the perfection of its predecessor, “Love Never Dies” keeps the shadowy underworld feeling of the original “Phantom of the Opera,” delves into the minds of the characters who were forced into a life-altering disturbance 10 years ago, and reignites the tale of mystery and romance for devotees of the Angel of Music.