Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “The Phantom of the Opera” sequel “Love Never Dies” opened seven years ago in London, has played several continents but has never been on Broadway. A year-long national tour just started last week in Utica, New York, and is now on Stop Two at Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre. But critics aren’t invited until October 25, during the production’s second week in Detroit.
Yet the Baltimore public is invited to pay up to $200 per ticket to see the musical, which on Wednesday night was practically full and didn’t look like it had a great deal to hide — even with an understudy playing Christine Daaé, the Phantom’s old obsession who shows up 10 years later for another series of tortured duets.
This is a new wrinkle in the very old book of showdowns between producers and critics. It’s one thing to have a preview period for performers and stagehands to settle in; previews even used to be significantly discounted, a good-faith concession from producers to fans as shows found their footing.
But using an entire tour stop as a critic-free preview zone? That’s not how out-of-town tryouts or tours run. Eventually reviewers report.
Because the show’s been around, the story’s no secret. It’s 10 years later — 1907 — and now the Phantom runs a sideshow at Coney Island. When Christine gets an invitation from Oscar Hammerstein to perform in New York, the gothic thriller machinery begins to churn, underscored by that familiar sinister pop-orchestral theme that announces the Phantom almost as recognizably as those two low notes from “Jaws” cue the shark.
The old gang is back: There’s Raoul, married to Christine but saddled with gambling debt (which is why they grab at the lucrative American gig). There’s Madame Giry, still in thrall to the Phantom’s dark genius and grooming her daughter Meg for some sort of stardom. Oh, and Christine and Raoul have a young son. You can guess a little too quickly how critical he’ll be to the plot.
The score sits squarely in “Phantom”-land, opening with a lonely power ballad from the still-pining Phantom and deploying a bit of rock, especially during a voyage into the Phantom’s new carnival-themed underworld with its freak show vision of “the beauty underneath.” Operatic climaxes rely on Very Big Singing, especially since a crucial decision hangs on whether Christine will perform the Phantom’s twisty, rapturous music once more. Rachel Anne Moore, subbing for Meghan Picerno Wednesday night, has opera training, and you see why she needs it.
The stage crew still labors at times to piece together the elements of Gabriela Tylesova’s amusement park set. Simon Phillips’s production appears to be less glossy than the Bob Crowley-designed London debut directed by Jack O’Brien, but the shadows and bright colors of Tylsova’s sets and costumes (including a glorious peacock gown for Christine) generally work in a downscale “Side Show” way. The story of freakish loner artists, credited to Lloyd Webber, Ben Elton, Glenn Slater and Frederick Forsyth, has dashes of “Carousel,” “Sunset Boulevard” and even Lloyd Webber’s “Whistle Down the Wind,” which also featured kids in jeopardy and in thrall to a mysterious figure.
Obviously, Coney Island isn’t the Paris Opera, and this idiosyncratic sequel is thinner, smaller, and odder than the iconic original. The real oddity is why the producers would want to wave off reviews for an entire tour stop (which didn’t work; the Baltimore Sun’s Tim Smith has weighed in, too). That’s like waving a distress signal. And it’s hypocritical to accept fans’ ready cash at the Hippodrome while coyly claiming you’re not really ready for your closeup.
The official tour opening of Love Never Dies will be Oct. 25 in Detroit, MI.