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REVIEW: Run, Do Not Walk, to Love Never Dies (Orpheum/Hennepin Theatre Trust)

Meghan Picerno as Christine Daaé in the national tour of Love Never Dies. Photo by Joan Marcus.

If you have any interest in Phantom of the Opera, you should go see Love Never Dies. If you’re interested in musicals but not super into Phantom of the Opera, you should probably see it anyway – it will give you numerous talking points with your fellow musical theatre fans. Once the tour leaves town, it’s going to be a hard one to catch for a long while.

For those not otherwise aware, Andrew Lloyd Webber began working on a sequel to the blockbuster smash Phantom of the Opera soon after that show opened on Broadway in January of 1988. Snippets of music were previewed at various events in the 1990s, but for various reasons the conception did not gel. Lloyd Webber abandoned the project, reusing one of the melodies for the musical The Beautiful Game.

Gardar Thor Cortes as the Phantom and Meghan Picerno as Christine Daaé in Love Never Dies. (Bronson Norris Murphy has since taken over the role of the Phantom.) Photo by Joan Marcus.

In the 2000s, however, Lloyd Webber became acquainted with thriller novelist Frederick Forsyth’s sequel to Gaston Leroux’s novel The Phantom of the OperaThe Phantom of Manhattan. The central conceit of Forsyth’s novel was that the Phantom escaped to New York, re-encountering Christine many years later when the latter came to sing at the opening of Oscar Hammerstein I (father of the famous librettist)’s new Manhattan Opera House. This planted the seeds for what became Love Never Dies.

Love Never Dies is a show that has been through many versions prior to the current national tour. The show premiered in London in 2010, went through substantial revisions there, and went through some major structural changes in a Melbourne production the following year. The current tour is a distant cousin to the London soundtrack album recorded, with many songs cut or greatly transformed. Although there are still a few areas that will likely be refined, the touring version is far superior to that heard on the London cast album. The show as you see it on the Orpheum Theatre’s stage is a fine musical, filled with spectacular sights and both very beautiful and stirring music. Scheduling both Phantom of the Opera and Love Never Dies in the same season is simply brilliant, and a rare opportunity to see a musical sequel worth its time.

If Phantom of the Opera pivots around the Phantom-Christine-Raoul love triangle, Love Never Dies pivots around the tangle between the Phantom, Christine, Raoul, Madame Giry, and Meg Giry. In refining Love Never Dies for the present version, much of the background exposition has been left on the cutting room floor, so if you’re seeing the show unawares these two pieces of information (hinted at, but not very explicitly stated) are helpful to know in advance: some very substantial favors have been done, and the Phantom has promised to leave the Girys his fortune in his will. The rest of the cuts have substantially improved the show’s flow, although there is still a duet pile-up in the middle of Act I.

Sean Thompson as Raoul, Christine’s husband and a man near the end of his rope in Love Never Dies. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The performances in Love Never Dies are top-notch. The Phantom and Christine are played by a pair of bonafide opera singers – Bronson Norris Murphy and Meghan Picerno, respectively – who navigate the music’s demands with beautiful ease. Two of the musical’s finest numbers are two quartets: the ever-shifting “My Dear Old Friend” quartet when Christine and Raoul are reunited with the Girys, and the expanded version of “Devil Take the Hindmost” in the second act. Many of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s recent shows have been criticized for using the less memorable pieces from his archive – literally pulled from the archive, in some cases –  the current version of Love Never Dies shows him near, if not at, the top of his game. These two quartets show the type of sweeping ensemble writing that no one does better.

Mary Michael Patterson (as Meg Giry), Meghan Picerno (as Christine Daaé), Karen Mason (as Madame Giry”), and Sean Thompson (as Raoul) in the quartet “Dear Old Friend”. This being a musical, naturally it doesn’t end well for most of the cast. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Besides the quartets, there are two stellar solo pieces: “‘Til I Hear You Sing” and the titular song “Love Never Dies”. The reprise of the title song really needs to be cut – it prolongs a moment from moving to protracted – but in their main iterations they are beautiful, powerful showcases. The decision to start in media res with the Phantom singing “‘Til I Hear You Sing” starts this version of the show off on a high note, which is far superior to the clunky exposition that weighed down the opening of its earlier iterations. It’s a hard act to follow, especially for the ensemble after the powerful yet lyrical sound of Murphy’s baritenor voice.

The song “Love Never Dies” is, as one might expect, the best-known piece from the show. Opera singer Kiri Te Kanawa popularized an earlier version as a concert aria, and the melody was also used for a song (cut during the more recent revival) in Lloyd Webber’s The Beautiful Game. In context, it is a song designed to seduce, to brainwash the singer and the audience by stoking the fire of nostalgia into a roaring flame. Hearing Picerno sing it, you might just fall in love.

At the end, Love Never Dies is a fine and thrilling show. It’s not the will-run-forever blockbuster that is Phantom of the Opera or Wicked, but it’s still an act you won’t want to miss.

Love Never Dies plays through July 1 at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, MN.

An earlier version of this review credited Gardar Thor Cortes as the Phantom. Bronson Norris Murphy has taken over the role on the national tour and sang at the reviewed performance.

Basil Considine