Freewheeling ‘Love Never Dies’ Does (Almost) Everything Well

Christine (Meghan Picerno) is abjectly stunned at the return of the rather insistent Phantom (Gardar Thor Cortes). Photos by Joan Marcus.

The Phantom of the Opera, longest-running Broadway musical in the history of the universe, is returning to Broadway San Diego in August on the heels of its successful 2015 run here. Broadway SD programming would thus seem out of kilter right now, as Love Never Dies, Phantom’s billed sequel, is the current mount at Civic Theatre, only five months before the Phantom reopening.

That’s an entirely forgivable sin, of course — and for Phantom freaks, the follow-up probably comes none too soon.

There stands the dementedly lovelorn Phantom, cursing the day he was born amid his Christine’s absence; worse still, she’s become a married mom since we last saw her, ostensibly out of his life forever.

Things progress as you’d predict, complete with the tragic ending — meanwhile, please do take in this show for Andrew Lloyd Webber and David Cullen’s lush orchestrations, Gabriela Tylesova’s masterful Freudian sets and costumes, Simon Phillips’ direction, Graeme Murphy Ao’s choreography and Nick Schlieper’s world-class lights, all on which Broadway SD can hang its hat.

Problem is, that hat is at times missing a brim.

The Phantom (original name Erik, from Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel Le Fantome de l’Opera) has now trudged through hell and high water to Coney Island in search of his Christine, over whose voice he’s obsessed since their meeting in Paris ten years ago; he stupefies her as she prepares for one last gig at a new opera hall. She acknowledges they have a history, even as she’s married to Viscount Raoul de Chagny and is raising her son Gustave.

The climax unfolds from there, with an errant bullet the metaphor for the ceaselessness of romantic love.

. . . [Y]ou just can’t find reliable subtext much anymore.

Lloyd Webber’s music is as freewheeling as it gets — those big fat chords lull you into a rhythm one minute and blow you out of your seat the next. It’s an ideal oeuvre for the story, which bobs and weaves between romance and phantasmagoria as they meet in the middle with the moral.

But you just can’t find reliable subtext much anymore. While Love Never Dies tightly sticks to its plot, it just as steadfastly neglects the substory(ies) that support the towering music and color palate. The past that has obviously rent the snarky Raoul’s soul; the thoroughgoing absence of any relationship between Gustave and Raoul; the identity of Gustave’s true birth father; Madame Giry’s role in the Phantom’s move to the U.S.: These and other subplots are thinly addressed at best, leaving the full-throated music to drift for itself in support.

Great tunes? Without question. Their raison d’etre? As often as not, you have to go look for it.

Gardar Thor Cortes’ Phantom has found same. His character’s register is unflinching in the face of the lower notes, and the level of his angst is as off the charts against Lloyd Webber’s tunes and Ben Elton’s book (“Before the Performance”). Feast on Christine’s “Love Never Dies” as rendered by the sensational Meghan Picerno; mourn with the great young Jake Heston Miller as his Gustave pines for a father figure. Everything’s pretty much across the street from everything else here, most notably amid Dale Rieling’s music direction, with the cast crossing at once for and against the lights.

You’d never guess the Phantom was hiding out here as he sought the one and only love of his life.

(Cortes, an Icelandic tenor whose renowned father founded the Icelandic Opera, performed the role in Hamburg for about a year. He and several Hamburg cast members stayed on for this run.)

Technical theater has quietly undergone an insurrection the last 20 years, the same kind that’s so deeply affected life in the public sector. You’ll find a microcosm of it here, with the abstract lighting and set pieces vying for some kind of award.

But the pomp and circumstance can sustain this show only so long before it becomes apparent that there’s nothing left to sustain. It dazzles; it stuns; it hits back; it blinds; it positively thrills.

Would that it moves.

This review is based on the media-night performance of March 28. Love Never Dies runs through April 1 at San Diego Civic Theatre, 1100 Broadway. $25-$145., (619) 564-3000.

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