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Sunday, June 9, 2019

F3Stage Review: Phantom's music of the night soars over restaging missteps

Film Flam Flummox

For many such as myself, The Phantom of the Opera holds a special place in the heart as the "gateway drug" that led to a lifelong love of live theater. Its status as an icon in pop culture, never mind in the ever-increasingly niche corner that is live stage, is no accident, for this is one of those singular feats in entertainment where everything appears to have magically fallen into place: the Gothic romance and horror hook--deformed, masked, musical genius goes to murderous lengths to win the affections of his young soprano protégé--of Gaston Leroux's original novel, Andrew Lloyd Webber's soaring melodies, Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe's evocative lyrics, director Harold Prince's revolutionary stagecraft, all assembled with utmost care by producer Cameron Mackintosh. With the original London West End and Broadway productions still going strong some three decades on without any signs of slowing down, it would appear to be a bit foolhardy to tamper with what has long worked and still to this day wins over new fans (or, rather, "Phans"), yet that's what Mackintosh has done with the current, restaged touring company, now in the midst of its second visit to the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. Billed as "the spectacular new production," anyone who's seen the original Prince-directed incarnation will only agree with the "new" part of that statement, but even then, the power of the music of the night overwhelms any shortcomings and outright missteps in this version.

This version, originally launched in the United Kingdom in 2012 and here in North America in 2013, is directed by Laurence Connor, who was also responsible for another scaled-down production of a Mackintosh mega-musical, Les Misérables (which, as it happens, directly preceded this production in the current Pantages season). While his downsizing work on that piece can be easily, though not comprehensively, summed up in two words--no turntable--given how Prince and his scenic and costume designer Maria Björnson crafted an exquisitely ornate spectacle from top to bottom, Connor and his designer, Paul Brown's, alterations to Phantom are a bit more extensive. With touring smaller venues in mind, the physical production streamlines and sometimes outright jettisons some of the more elaborate design touches in the original, and not just the larger ones such as the famous chandelier; in the title song alone, for instance, the descending catwalks and candelabras that ascend from the bottom of a misty lake are long gone. While noticeably more cramped than the Prince version, aside from the reworked chandelier, whose iconic rise and fall would be incredibly underwhelming here even for a first time live Phantom viewer, Brown's newer designs are perfectly adequate, if necessarily lacking the seamless, cinematic fluidity of Prince's scene transitions. Ironically enough, in compacting this production, Connor and scenic designer Paul Brown have done a reverse Les Mis, introducing a central revolving set piece here, a cylinder that most impressively makes for a more practical but still visually interesting passage into the catacombs beneath the Paris Opera House that opens up to reveal Phantom's (Derrick Davis) lair as well as houses the offices of hapless opera house owners Firmin (David Benoit) and André (Rob Lindley). While overall not as grandiose, Connor and Brown do exercise some visual creativity in their substitutions, such as the hall of mirrors that replaces the grand staircase in the act two opener, "Masquerade."

Where Connor runs into some entirely self-created problems is in the blocking, which in the first act comes off as change for change's sake. This most blatantly and unfortunately arises in one of the most famous passages in the show, "The Music of the Night" and its immediate aftermath. Not only a key moment from a narrative and character standpoint, with the Phantom whisking away his beloved Christine Daaé (Eva Tavares) to his lair after her triumphant singing debut and reasserting his sensual musical thrall over her, it's also one from the cast perspective, for it's a crucial chemistry building between the leads to sell the entire romance. Prince's original staging, for all the accoutrements that fill the stage, wisely keeps focus on the actors and relies on their skills and developing rapport, and as their push-pull gradually, inevitably moves from an intangible one to a physical one, ending in--when the pairing of actors works--a complete surrender and tangible connection. Connor, for no good reason, turns this into some weird, overly busy quasi-S&M scenario with the Phantom blindfolding Christine and her stumbling about for the bulk of the number. The less said about the scene that follows, originally a critical beat of agency by Christine involving the Phantom's mask that for some reason now has barely anything to do with the mask, the better.

Apparently having gotten over the urge to force a differing "vision" onto the material, after intermission Connor apparently learns to more completely trust it, which is still entirely involving and enveloping after 30 years. He's helped immeasurably by a solid cast. If the character of Raoul, Christine's upstanding suitor, is still an incredibly thankless part, Jordan Craig sounds good and strikes the necessary, earnest bond with Tavares in their key duet, the now-wedding song staple "All I Ask of You." Singing beautifully from the start, Tavares only grows in strength much like how her character does as the story goes on, really hitting her stride from the underrated early act two gem "Twisted Every Way" onward. Her chemistry with the charismatic, menacing, and piercingly empathetic Davis, despite that bizarre "Music of the Night" staging, is palpable, reaching a feverish erotic boil in the climactic "The Point of No Return." That song, as ever, is aptly named, for that begins one of those most tense, suspenseful, emotionally urgent final stretches of any musical--which, in Connor's one truly inspired deviation from the Prince template, manages to be even more devastating. No spoilers, but the Phantom's--and the show's--final line now has an even more bittersweet lead-in that results in an even bigger wallop, further amplified by Davis's towering star turn. By the famous closing notes, the music of the night once again proves its everlasting power, undiluted by some less than ideal direction and production choices.

Derrick Davis as The Phantom, Eva Tavares as Christine Daaé
(photo by Matthew Murphy)

The Phantom of the Opera is now playing at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood through Sunday, July 7; the touring company then continues in Southern California at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa from Wednesday, July 10 through Sunday, July 21 before moving on to other cities through the rest of the year.

Buy the The Phantom of the Opera Original London Cast album CD here.
Buy The Complete Phantom of the Opera book here.
Buy the The Phantom of the Opera movie Blu-ray here.
Buy the The Phantom of the Opera movie DVD here.
Buy the The Phantom of the Opera movie soundtrack CD here.
Buy the The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall: In Celebration of 25 Years Blu-ray here.
Buy the The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall: In Celebration of 25 Years DVD here.
Buy the The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall: In Celebration of 25 Years CD here.

(Special thanks to Hollywood Pantages Theatre)

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