Broadway’s longest-running production is on the verge of celebrating 30 phenomenal years and any signs of stoppage are merely phantasmic.
Playing in tandem with the beloved behemoth on the Great White Way is Cameron Mackintosh’s revamped touring production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera, which at last returns to play to keen Montreal audiences this October after an overlong 25-year absence.
Basic on the classic novel Le Fantôme de L’Opéra by Gaston Leroux, Phantom transports us back to late 19th-century Paris where the Opéra Populaire finds itself in dire financial straits. Lurking beneath its catacombs is the Opera Ghost – “O.G.” – a musical genius and mysterious masked figure exercising a longtime reign of terror over the palatial premises. He falls madly in love with a young soprano, Christine, and devotes himself to orchestrating the ingénue’s rise to stardom within the company by nurturing her prodigious talents and employing all of the very devious methods at his command. It’s the quintessential beauty-and-the-beast story of unrequited love tinged with murder.
Billed as a “re-imagined” production, the sojourning juggernaut – currently one of the largest touring musicals in North America with an impressive cast and orchestra of 52 – is directed by Laurence Connor and newly designed by Paul Brown. The iconic music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and the Tony Award-winning costume designs of the late, great Maria Björnson are fortuitously here preserved. Webber’s and Richard Stilgoe’s script also remains largely intact.
And, fret not: the signature chandelier returns as a prominent one-ton fixture marvellously perched above the audience – although it unfortunately doesn’t quite take the full plunge (alas, no Phantom chandelier has yet surpassed the extravagance of the free-falling one featured in the “Las Vegas Spectacular” edition, which closed at The Venetian in 2012 following a six-year run.)
Returning patrons, however, are bound to take notice of refurbished sets, props, lighting, choreography, and staging. Expect explosions, gun fire, and pyrotechnics galore beyond the stagecraft of smoke and mirrors. Fight sequences have been heightened, with grotesque murders in plain view. Projected silhouettes have been incorporated into the visuals.
The most sensational new element, however, is a titanic polymorphic cylindrical wall that swivels, expands, and opens up like a pop-up storybook to reveal a multitude of spaces, from the Phantom’s subterranean lair to the Opera House Managers’ office – all of which have been significantly redesigned.
Majestic, opulent, ornate, and elaborate, this certainly doesn’t feel like your typically downsized touring show. Consider the monumental gold proscenium, sweeping backdrops, and towering statues, and it’s no wonder it takes 20 trucks to haul the production from city to city and the labour of 75 local stagehands to load the cavalcade into each theatre.
Those intimately familiar with the Hal Prince original may, however, in their attachment to the former’s immaculacy and resistance to its change, be tempted to raise a defiant half mask up against other features of the fresh face lift.
Where magic has been conjured in new places, unfortunately it seems to have dissipated in others.
Act 2 opener “Masquerade”, for one, has had its grand staircase exchanged for a mirrored ballroom (which, in many ways, is no less resplendent). One was quite pleased to see that the filler mannequins had been cast out of the vibrant number (as did the comical mirror bride in “Music of the Night“) – but with them went several memorable carnivalesque costumed characters. The suspenseful image of the Phantom slowly walking down the stairs singing “why so silent…” in an articulated skull mask and highly-plumed red hat is universally one of the most arresting scenes in the narrative, but this production merely attempts to remake the entrance from the 2004 movie version – to underwhelming effect.
The Phantom’s overhauled lair herein is also a disheartening and perplexing head-scratcher in contemplation of its mesmeric Broadway and West End counterparts. His initial descent with Christine into the dark depths of the theatre and onto the iconic gondola floating over dry ice during the title song is a most chilling mise en scène (the treacherous steps rendered audible gasps). Once at his sanctuary, however, we find only a few candelabras and abstract electric light fixtures hanging above – a dim visual in comparison to the dreamlike quality of the enchanting original tableau featuring a maze of hundreds of lit candles that emerge from the haze.
Then, in the tender duet “All I Ask of You,” a statute of Apollo’s Lyre looms over Raoul and Christine – a faithful nod to the rooftop architecture of the Palais Garnier (and to the source material of Leroux’s 1910 novel). However, the Phantom’s appearance from behind it is rather void of thrill. It should also be mentioned that audience members seated to the front and far left side of the house will miss a significant portion of the number and its reprise due to segments of the gargantuan rotating stage wall blocking the view. The 10-ton centrepiece is in itself quite the attraction, but it does tend to box the setting in throughout the show, often leaving the far sides of the stage dark and bare and the centre overcrowded.
Per the old, sage adage: why fix what is not broken?
Logistics and budgetary limitations imposed on a touring production may reasonably be to blame, but money can’t buy love, as they too say, and debatably the most worrisome aspect of this Phantom is a muted passion in the Erik-Christine-Raoul triangle. The matter of contention lies not in the acting (this visiting company features a fine cast of leading and supporting players), but rather due to inorganic blocking and staging that lack necessary tinctures of dramatic and sexual tension.
Director Laurence Connor can be positively credited for skimming and streamlining the libretto, adding momentum to the piece by shaving off 20 minutes of throwaway scenes. But, in his bid for realism and subtlety over melodrama and buffoonery in this “darker” interpretation of the romantic epic, the title character is stripped of much of his alluring deliberate theatricality, mystery, and sophistication. The Angel of Music here appears in his prowess as less of a ghost and more of a man.
Quips and qualms of an opinionated killjoy aside (I only speak and write with great investment as I credit Phantom for first catapulting me into the world of theatre as a young misfit; my concerns herein voiced are an impassioned expression of tough love), this revision stays faithful to the classical baroque look and feel of the original. Phantom remains timelessly elegant – and unapologetically so.
Most importantly, it triumphs in its primary drawing point: the music. The Phantom of the Opera is arguably Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most inspired score to date, and a most critical component in the franchise’s ascent as one of the most commercially successful pieces of entertainment of all time. With a lush, full-sized orchestra, the touring production is generous in musicians (by today’s standards), and the accompanying voices are impeccable in technique and artistry.
Indeed, no singular performance can be faulted. Derrick Davis is exquisite in his poignant incarnation of the tragically disfigured outcast behind the mask. Beyond a deep, resonant voice that haunts the stage – even when he’s not on it – Davis reigns as a commanding physical presence. His Phantom, however, is presented as more internally conflicted than outwardly menacing, but his range – from raw and animalistic at times to smooth and vulnerable at others – is riveting.
Eva Tavares as the fresh-from-the-chorus Christine Daae also enthrals, capturing the ingénue’s loss of innocence in addition to her endearing earnestness and profound compassion for her tortured tutor. “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again,” in which she mourns her father’s passing, is a heartrending highlight. Jordan Craig as Christine’s childhood friend-turned-lover Vicomte de Chagny brings both charm and gravitas to the role. Together, the masterly vocalists provide a feast for the ears.
Trista Moldovan as the opera diva Carlotta Giudicelli, Phumzile Sojola as her male counterpart Ubaldo Piangi, and David Benoit and Edward Staudenmayer as the beleaguered impresarios Monsieur Firmin and Monsieur André, respectively, earn resounding mentions here for their comedic work. Kristie Dale Sanders and Emily Ramirez as an astute Madame Giry and an amiable Meg Giry round the excellent supporting cast.
For those that have yet to experience the cultural phenomenon of Phantom on stage, this is a first-rate introduction to one of the classics of the musical theatre canon. Seasoned “phanatics”, if they can fend off the temptation of comparisons with predecessors, will too find reasons to leave wide-eyed, if not at least be aurally transfixed and transported by “the music of the night“.
Audiences expect spectacle from Phantom, and from the goosebump-inducing blast of the organ and dramatic chords of the powerful overture to the shattering final scene, spectacular it certainly is. Resist not the opportunity to secure a ticket, or another 25 years in waiting may just be the price.
THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA
Running Time: 2 hours and 25 minutes (including one 15-minute intermission)
Next in Montreal: LES MISÉRABLES,
presented at Place des Arts from February 7 to 11, 2018!
Tickets available for sale October 20th at www.evenko.ca