The global blockbuster musical "The Phantom of the Opera" has spawned legions of fanatical fans since its 1986 debut. But the biggest "Phanatic" is arguably the show's composer, Andrew Lloyd Webber, who defied naysayers to create the 2010 sequel "Love Never Dies."
A North American tour of "Love Never Dies" -- which stars suburban actors in key roles -- makes its Chicago debut at the Cadillac Palace Theatre starting Feb. 14, giving local audiences the chance to see if the murderous masked Phantom finally succeeds in his obsessive pursuit of opera singer Christine Daaé.
La Grange native Meghan Picerno stars as Christine, a role that initially wasn't on her radar.
"To be honest, my first time seeing 'The Phantom of the Opera' was this past March," laughed Picerno.
Picerno originally planned to pursue a career as a coloratura opera soprano. Her recent stints singing Cunegonde in Bernstein's "Candide" for New York City Opera in 2017 and the title role in Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor" for Brooklyn's Regina Opera in 2016 were steps in that direction.
Her "Candide" director, Harold Prince, urged her to see his original 1988 Broadway "Phantom" production. A week later, she got a call to audition for the sequel.
"A little while later I sang for Andrew Lloyd Webber and that afternoon I got the part," Picerno said. "That was my crazy, rather brief audition process, which I know is very rare."
Picerno prefers the Christine of "Love Never Dies" to the perpetually spooked ingénue of the original. Lloyd Webber and story collaborators Glenn Slater, Ben Elton and Frederick Forsyth set the sequel 10 years later, with a 28-year-old Christine facing different challenges.
"She's a world-famous, very successful opera star, and that in itself comes with a slew of responsibilities," Picerno said. "She's also a mother and in a marriage that is very strained, and there are passions living within her that she can't really admit to."
Christine once again encounters the Phantom (Gardar Thor Cortes), who has escaped from France and built an entertainment empire along the Coney Island shore in New York. The Phantom was empowered thanks to the machinations of former Paris Opera Ballet mistress Madame Giry (former Arlington Heights resident and Broadway veteran Karen Mason) and her ballerina daughter, Meg (Mary Michael Patterson).
"The characters are going through a very dark, deep journey, and Madame Giry is a survivor," said Mason.
"There is also a whole other connection to the Phantom that isn't necessarily explained in the show, but it's a deeper relationship," Mason said. "Meg has grown up with her mother always saving the Phantom and always trying to catch his favor."
Though not considered a success in its 2010 debut, "Love Never Dies" wasn't abandoned by Lloyd Webber. He and the musical's authors made drastic changes in director Simon Phillips' heavily revamped 2011 Australian version. That became the basis for subsequent "Love Never Dies" productions, including the North American tour.
Since Mason still has relatives living in Arlington Heights, Itasca and Schaumburg, she's keen to have Chicago audiences embrace the musical. Mason also highlighted other local connections in "Love Never Dies" with Michael Gillis of Barrington as a Phantom understudy and Cary native Casey Lyons as one of two boys rotating in the role of Christine's son, Gustave.
"It is a beautiful production. The designs by Gabriela Tylesova are absolutely spectacular," Mason said. "Chicagoans, we love drama, we love passion, a great story and beautiful music. And great singing! I think Chicago will be very proud of Meg and myself and Mike and Casey."