Raise your hand if your first exposure to Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel Le Fantôme de l'Opéra was Andrew Lloyd Webber’s iconic goth musical, the longest-running musical on Broadway, The Phantom of the Opera. Or was it the image of Lon Chaney’s horrific – and self-applied – makeup from the 1925 film version? Or maybe it was via R.L. Stine’s kiddie horror book The Phantom of the Auditorium? No, not that one? That’s okay. The point is that, like many of the shows gracing Houston’s biggest stages this season, its source material is not only indelibly etched into the minds of theatergoers, it holds a much loftier place in the public’s psyche from years of adaptations and the many other ways it’s bled into pop culture.
All that to say, when the Phantom comes to town, expectations are high.
The Phantom of the Opera opens in a 19th-century Parisian opera house where strange – and potentially deadly – happenings have been occurring, the least of which is that a young dancer-turned-opera singer, Christine Daaé, has been receiving late-night vocal lessons from someone she believes is the “Angel of Music,” a heavenly gift sent down from her deceased father.
When the company’s resident diva Carlotta storms off after one too many near death experiences attributed to the “Opera Ghost,” Christine gets a chance to play lead in the company’s first production under new management, which is also their first production under a new patron, Christine’s childhood sweetheart Raoul. As she reconnects with Raoul, her “Angel of Music” appears and – wouldn’t you know it – Christine’s angel and the “Opera Ghost” are one in the same, and he does not like this turn of events, becoming more possessive, obsessive and murderous than before.
Director Laurence Connor has a lavish production on his hands, namely Cameron Mackintosh’s reimagined production. It boasts a breakneck pace. It’s loud. And, boy, is it beautiful.
Paul Brown’s set is stunning, a visual treat that is as alive as any cast member. It turns, panels rotate, walls part and unfold to reveal new locations and then close, fitting together like puzzle pieces. The sets of the operas-within-the-musical are each well-defined ostentatious displays, which together with the golden warmth of the opera house stand in stark contrast to the Phantom’s lair. Especially eye-catching is the descent into the Phantom’s labyrinth via stairs that magically emerge one by one from the wall. And rest assured – while there are some new looks, like the mirrored ballroom of the second act’s masquerade, you can still count on old favorites, which means that Chekov’s chandelier still glitters from the ceiling.
Paule Constable’s commanding lighting designs further set the mood, as do Maria Björnson’s costumes, which befit the gothic, romantic nature of this spectacle. Nina Dunn’s projections provides depth and dynamism to the production, in particular during Madame Giry’s reveal of the Phantom’s past. It adds to the Phantom’s mystique, as does Mick Potter’s sound design, which includes the Phantom’s seemingly omnipresent, disembodied voice.
The 15-piece orchestra, under the direction of Jamie Johns, brings all the bombast you could want in a production of The Phantom of the Opera. It’s overwhelms like a rock concert, and though it mostly adds to the experience, at some points, like during the titular song, it drowned out some of our leads’ lovely harmonies.
Sweet-voiced soprano Eva Tavares is at her best when she plays Christine’s innocence and vulnerability. Christine is treated as a pawn on a chess board for much of the show, with the Phantom and Raoul being the players. Tavares’s strength at playing Christine’s softer sides contributes to the character losing some agency and the production losing some of its conflict. When Tavares’s Christine comes to a fork in the road, there’s no doubt, not even for a second, which way she’ll go. Still, Tavares and Quentin Oliver Lee’s Phantom are arresting when they sing together, especially during the piece’s titular showstopper.
Lee’s tortured Phantom towers over the production, both literally and figuratively. He’s sinister, imposing, and yet as pitiable as ever. Lee is the star of this production, and his performance, as well as his low, deep renditions of “The Music of the Night” and “The Point of No Return,” are worth the price of admission.
The roadblock to the Phantom’s plan is Jordan Craig’s Raoul, and Craig plays the protector-hero well. Joining Craig in trying to stop the Phantom are the new owners of the opera house, David Benoit’s Monsieur Firmin and Rob Lindley’s Monsieur André, albeit in a much more exasperated way.
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Sarah Mossman owns the role of Carlotta, delivering a diva’s lament that is to be envied. Mossman is able to show off her vocal chops while playing the comedy of her character well. And though limited, Phumzile Sojola, as her usual leading man Ubaldo Piangi, and Adam Bashian, as Don Attilio in the company’s second opera, are equally good at bringing the funny to their scenes.
The wound tight, strict ballet mistress Madame Giry, who knows more than she lets on, is played with strength by Susan Moniz, who knocks her biggest scene right out of the park.
If expectations are high when the Phantom comes to town, and they are, consider them met in Mackintosh’s production, where inventive staging and talented performers come together to put on an excellent show. If you’re thinking, “Oh, I’ve seen Phantom before, I don’t need to see it again,” let me tell you in no uncertain terms – you’re wrong. You need to see this production.
Performances are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. Through November 18. For more information, call 713-315-2525 or 800-982-2787 or visit thehobbycenter.org or broadwayatthehobbycenter.com. $55 to $165.