If you've been living under some anti-musical rock for the past 27 years, you may have missed Phantom of the Opera, a super-production from Andrew Lloyd Webber (Jesus Christ Superstar, Cats, Evita, Sunset Boulevard) and Charles Hart (lyrics) and Richard Stilgoe (co-librettist with Sir Andrew, and co-lyricist with Hart). Although how that would be possible is beyond me, since this mega-hit has been around continually on one tour or another ever since its 1988 premiere. It's still playing on Broadway and in London, making this show the longest-running musical ever in the history of the world. That's some record to uphold.
When you see this version, and I urge you to don your opera cape and scamper to the Hobby Center, you will see why.
This Phantom is billed as a “new production,” and while the original sets by the incomparable late Maria Bjonson have been revamped and modularized in ways quite imaginative by Paul Brown, her richly accented period clothes along with those gargantuan opera costumes remain intact. What has been lost is a sense of the spectacular. There are no candelabras rising from the subterranean mists as the Phantom punts his gondola, laden with our heroine, to his foggy grotto; Act II's splashy opener, “Masquerade,” is without its Palais Garnier grand staircase, which always looked like the entire chorus world of Broadway had been hired for this one number. The expansive backstage milieu of a frantic opera house is now shuttered in gloomy shadows. The grand descent into the bowels of the building no longer occurs on ramps that lower and crisscross the back of the stage, although it's been saved by Brown's own scenic coup as the stone treads magically slink out of the turret wall for each downward footstep; and the opera house rooftop, where true love blooms in “All I Ask of You,” is mostly a rickety papier-mâché statue behind which the vengeful Phanton emerges to curse the couple. The whole enterprise is now shadowed in shadows.
Surprisingly, it still looks big and impressive, if only because no other contemporary show has such scenic wonders built into its very fabric: an opera house auditorium with side boxes, an artificial lake, miles of underground corridors, the rooftops of Paris, and three opera productions to be staged, all in different modes with dance sequences, too, inside the story. This is DeMille territory. Built for the recent world tour, this “new” Phantom is still the biggest thing around, with enough pyrotechnics to char hot dogs in the third row. And one huge improvement – finally, that glittering chandelier comes hurtling down on the front rows before Act I's blackout, instead of the stately glide I remember in New York. This production is built to travel, sleek and beautiful and cleverly thought out using some awesome stagecraft. Phantom still amazes, and that's a great part of its universal appeal.
Of course, the real appeal is Webber's lush, romantic score and that weepie of a story. Poor disfigured Phantom, a musical genius, so we're told, is in love with virginal dancer Christine, who has the voice of an angel. Why she's stuck in the corps de ballet instead of the chorus is never explained, but never mind, she's been given singing lessons by the unseen Phantom, and he demands that she receive her debut. Everyone thinks she's deluded, except spooky ballet mistress Madame Giry, who knows a lot more about the “opera ghost” than she lets on, but her character is hazy and hastily drawn. To facilitate his blackmail, disasters befall the opera house, culminating in that aforementioned chandelier crash. But Christine has fallen in love with Raoul, a childhood boyfriend, which sends poor Phantom into another tailspin. During the performance of his “modern” work, he abducts Christine again, this time against her will. She is saved, not by virtuous Raoul but by her impetuous kiss. Her act of compassion clears the Phantom's deranged mind and he releases the young couple. When the gendarmes arrive to capture him, he magically disappears out of their clutches. Cue the sequel.
The musical is swathed, caressed and enveloped under Webber's soaring anthems (“The Music of the Night'), bits of Gilbert & Sullivan (“The Notes” and “Prima Donna”) and operatic pastiche (Meyerbeer for “Hannibal;” Rossini for “Il Muto;” Webber for the Phantom's atonal “Don Juan Triumphant”). It's a grand score, grand in melody, grand in orchestration, grand in conception. The music suits the tale entirely and sweeps us along with unerring rightness. It's big and glossy.
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The official press release has stressed that this production is grittier and more real, but there's no evidence of this. It's certainly darker, but that's only because Paul Constable's crepuscular lighting is so dim, not because of any psychological underpinnings from director Laurence Connor. (If they are there, I'm not sure they register in any appreciable manner. I certainly missed any significant layers.) Anyway, how is anyone going to render Phantom more believable than it is? Sir Andrew makes us believe in this 19th-century hokum, and that's enough.
This is an entirely serviceable cast, which is no small praise because of the score's vocal demands, but no one stands out, either. They make their impression and play it well, but perhaps the smoky gloom has gotten to them, too. Chris Mann as Phantom (from The Voice) can't eclipse the eccentric electricity of the original, Michael Crawford; Katie Travis as Christine has a crystalline soprano but no oomph; Storm Lineberger as Raoul sings well but he decides to hide any stage presence; and Jacquelynn Fontaine plays comic diva Charlotta with operatic wink and fiery soprano. Everyone's okay, but Phantom isn't necessarily an actor's show. If you can put across Webber's romance, you're almost there. His music, the effects and the scenic wonders are the stars. And those things are definitely showcased on this tour at the Hobby, maybe a little smaller and a bit more compact then we remember, but Phantom remains Broadway's reigning star. He may no longer be the young stud – that would be Hamilton – but he looks awfully good for his age.
Phantom of the Opera continues through November 29. Broadway at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For information, call 800-982-2787 or visit TheHobbyCenter.org. $50-$170.