An old storytelling trick is to start in the middle of the action, and Love Never Dies book writer Ben Elton has embraced that advice with gusto. The sequel to Andrew Lloyd Webber's massive global hit The Phantom of the Opera begins not with a scene-setting ensemble number or an atmospheric introduction, but with the Phantom himself, wailing high about his lost love Christine and pounding away at another organ in another lair.
It's an 11 o'clock number before most folks have even settled into their seats, and it might give you whiplash. This is especially true if you're not familiar with Sir Webber's original musical (which is still selling out on Broadway and in the West End decades after it debuted). Instead of a Paris opera house, we're in Coney Island and it's a decade after the Phantom (Bronson Norris Murphy) mysteriously vanished after terrorizing his opera house and its staff.
What's the masked man up to now? Running a revue amid the rollercoasters and the side show freaks, where his facial abnormalities now just blend in with the crowd and his obsessive, possessive, sometimes murderous urges seem to have mostly tapered off. Ferrying him to America were former ballet mistress Madame Giry (Broadway vet Karen Mason) and her daughter, Meg (a former Broadway Christine, Mary Michael Patterson), now headlining as an "ooh la la" girl but aggressively jockeying for leading lady status with lots of petulant whining.
The fierce Madame Giry, as well, has undergone a personality change. Now she's more Mama Rose than imperious instructor, and both mother and daughter appear to harbor a bit of a crush on their masked employer.
Oh, did no one tell you? The Phantom is now a straight-up sex symbol, a rom-com hero whom every female in this show not only lusts after, but will kill for. There has always been an undercurrent of dangerous sexuality to the Phantom, but here it feels like Elton threw up his hands, threw out every previous character description, and decided to start fresh (with some guidance from Frederick Forsyth's The Phantom of Manhattan), changing up ambitions, personalities, and even motives. Besides Love Never Dies, Elton's main musical credit is the book for the sci-fi Queen musical We Will Rock You — the absurd plot devices don't seem quite so bizarre when you keep that in mind.
It's all to force a tepid love triangle once more between the masked man and the woman he loves to stalk, plus the Ken doll who waits for her. Christine Daaé, now the world's foremost soprano (played by New York City Opera's Meghan Picerno), has been lured to America to sing at Oscar Hammerstein's new opera house (a video recording of the Australia production that this tour is based on exists, and if "Hammerstein" is said even half as many times there as here, then everyone would be at serious risk of alcohol poisoning).
She's accompanied by her husband, Raoul, the now-surly and detached Vicomte de Chagny (played sluggishly by Sean Thompson), and their cherubic son Gustave (Jake Heston Miller, a true highlight with an angelic voice; he alternates with Christian Harmston). We know Raoul is an alcoholic because every other line is "I need a drink" or "I need something stronger," and he appears to stay with his wife only to pay off his massive debts through her money-making voice. So when the Phantom seductively comes calling, there's never even a hint of "will she/won't she" tension — Raoul's out the door so quick it would make the contortionist's head spin twice.
Slinking throughout the eerie fairgrounds — Gabriela Tylesova's elaborate set and costumes are Coney Island by way of Tim Burton — is a trio that functions less as narrators and more as distractions while the sets change. The gangly Stephen Petrovich (named, of course, Gangle), the rotund Richard Koons (dubbed Squelch), and the diminutive Katrina Kemp (the most engaging, as Fleck) are entertaining to watch, even if their purpose is entirely superfluous.
But what of the music, you ask? Well, it's no Phantom of the Opera. Though the O.G. pairing of Webber and Charles Hart (who rewrote some of new collaborator Glenn Slater's lyrics) have churned out about 30 new songs for this melodrama, the audience only perks up when a familiar melody or chord from the original escapes — the others are that dull and derivative, or sound like a Saturday Night Live satire.
Performing Arts Fort Worth's presentation of the national tour of Love Never Dies plays at Bass Hall through August 12.