BWW Reviews: PHANTOM Enchants in Final Tour Stop in L.A.
Currently the record-holder for being the longest-running show in Broadway history (and still counting), Andrew Lloyd Webber's most widely-seen masterwork THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA has now taken up residence at Los Angeles' historic Pantages Theatre in Hollywood for the national tour's final engagement of shows, ending fittingly on Halloween night, October 31. After more than two decades of award-winning, capacity-crowd performances across several continents in several languages, the traveling troupe will soon hang up their masks and corsets after a continuous, highly-successful trek of 17 years.
Virtually unchanged since its West End debut in 1986, PHANTom Continues to enthrall both new and repeat audiences alike. Though some contemporary show-goers (including, admittedly, even myself) may now huff and grumble that this musical is just a big, bloated slab of cheese smothered generously over dated musical and theatrical devices, there is no denying that this show—with its oohs-and-aahs-inspring technical marvels and beautifully melodic music—is still a relatively marvelous theatrical triumph. Once it gets hold of you, resistance is (somewhat) futile.
This Tony Award-winning musical's intricately-thought-out combination of intriguing mystery, unabashed romance, memorable music and dazzling theatrical wizardry—as eye-popping as ever during the show's much-heralded L.A. opening night performance over the weekend—is an over-the-top extravaganza that has been shrewdly designed to contain at least one or more things for its audiences to really love...
There's the fascinating story, based on the French novel Le Fantôme de L'Opéra by Gaston Leroux (that itself inspired two feature films as well), which tells the tale of a mysterious (read: creepy) Phantom that has allegedly taken up residence at the Paris Opéra House in the 1880's. There's the richly-orchestrated, opera-inspired score by Webber and lyricist Charles Hart (with additional lyrics by Richard Stilgoe). There's the clever staging and choreography by Gillian Lynne. And, of course, there's the awe-inspiring production design by Maria Björnson, complemented by Andrew Bridge's lighting design. Something new that perhaps wasn't available in its original incarnations in London and New York is the impressive sound mix designed by Martin Levan, providing a complimentary addition to the visual technical feats on stage. This eerie surround sound effect brings a new aural layer to the Phantom's creepy demands.
Directed by the legendary Harold Prince, PHANTOM introduced musical theater audiences to the idea of the super-extravagantly-visual musical... a show bursting at the seams with so much visual and aural wonders, that it enchants its audience into submission. With such tactics, it's not much of a stretch to conclude that many of today's modern blockbusters owe their craft to this eye-popping show. Though, it does seem that PHANTOM uses these theatrical tricks to distract its audience from its flaws, it is still an example of a successfully-executed product—in which all of these said devices come together really, really well.
In the show's intriguing opening prologue, we find ourselves in 1911, in the middle of an auction at the Paris Opéra House. By the looks of how things are covered up and boxed, this theater has been shuttered for some time. One of the items up for sale—lot 666, specifically—is a reconstructed but shattered chandelier. The auctioneer divulges that it was involved in the tragic, strange events surrounding the time when the Opera House was haunted by a Phantom.
With a bit of ingenious theater magic, we are soon instantly transported back thirty years, to the late 1880's, during the Opera House's magnificent, gold-leafed heyday. A legend instilling fear amongst the cast and crew, many believe that the Phantom truly exists and is haunting the place like a madman intent on getting his way (he is played, in the flesh, by the excellent Tim Martin Gleason).
After an "accidental" collapse of a backdrop during dress rehearsals of their production of Hannibal, Carlotta (Kim Stengel), the show's resident lead prima donna, storms off the stage, refusing to return. Fearful of canceling that night's opening performance, the Opera's new owners (D.C. Anderson and Michae McCoy) reluctantly tap chorus girl Christine (the splendid Trista Moldovan) to step into Carlotta's role at the assurance of ballet mistress Madame Giry (Nancy Hess). Much like in 42nd Street, the understudy becomes a hit.
After her well-received debut performance, Christine reveals to her closest confidante Meg (Paloma Garcia-Lee) that Christine's lead role musical skills blossomed under the tutelage of a mysterious, unseen teacher she refers to as the "Angel of Music." Primping in her dressing room, Christine is then introduced to one of the theater's backers, Raoul (Sean MacLaughlin), and the two are instantly smitten with one another. Once Raoul departs, the Phantom (posing as said "Angel of Music") appears in her dressing room mirror, then forcibly takes her down to his secret lair, hidden deep beneath the lake-side recesses of the Opera House (you'll need a gondola ride to get there). Once they arrive, Christine discovers his horror of a living space—complete with an antique pipe organ, an opulent throne, a disturbing musical circus-monkey toy (an item auctioned in the show's prologue), and even a ghastly, life-sized Christine doll dressed in a white wedding gown. Again, read: really creepy.
The Phantom, though, insists on showing his captive that he is indeed a musical genius by composing music in front of her. Out of morbid curiosity, Christine yanks the Phantom's mask and is understandably repulsed by his monstrous face. The Phantom, though, tells Christine that he had always wished to look less grotesque in the hopes of winning Christine's love in return. Filled with pity for the Phantom, she is soon released (relatively) unharmed. I couldn't help but think... "Christine, are you crazy? This scary guy kidnapped you! Run!"
Later, we soon discover that the Phantom—through a series of notes personally delivered to several key operatives of the theater—threateningly demands that Christine be made the Opera House's star actress, much to protestations of Carlotta. When his demands are met with resistance from the producers, the Phantom resorts to dangerous—and in some cases, utterly murderous—methods to get his way. The Phantom soon spies Christine and Raoul in the rooftop of the Opera House where she confesses her secret about the Phantom, and where they both profess their unyielding love for one another. Crushed by this new discovery, the Phantom furiously declares (in song, of course) to exact revenge on Raoul and everyone he deems is against him.
Cue... the crashing chandelier.
Despite some uncomfortable synth musical moments that sound less retro-kitschy but instead just more awkward and dated (as in the cavern-descending background music echoing the refrain of the title song), PHANTOM's music mostly aches with beauty and longing. Compared against the rest of the score, where the highs and lows of the beautiful strings and brass create a rich, luscious sound, the songs marred by synth keyboard riffs are downright cringe-worthy. PHANTOM may be a horror-like musical, but those synth interludes feel like bad sci-fi/horror music—an unfortunate by-product of the 80's. PHANTOM is better elevated during several stand-alone songs such as "Music of the Night," "All I Ask of You," and the fun "Masquerade." The musical arias from the shows-within-the-show feel quite authentic as well.
The cast itself, particularly the leads in this closing tour, are just terrific. Yes, the acting here is extremely stylized, and at times even too affected, but it's certainly genre-appropriate... and particularly expected in such an over-the-top, hyper-melodramatic musical like PHANTOM. The grandest of gestures and the over-acted movements are part of its grand design. Gleason—who toiled for years playing Raoul in three different companies—has quite a commanding presence as the Phantom, singing with passion and authenticity. As the young lovers caught in the Phantom's crosshairs, Moldovan and MacLaughlin are also wonderful and swoon-worthy. All three have truly powerful, amazing voices as well.
Overall, PHANTOM truly is an enchanting, haunting musical, harnessing the musicality of legit opera, the moody visuals of cinema, and the bright, exuberant nature of musical theater. It excels best in its sheer, unapologetic audacity for theatrical splendor, designed to fill your eyes and ears with richness—whether it be in its gorgeously lush orchestrations, its operatic-leaning musical theater presentation, or its visual wow-factor on steroids. Is it to distract from its shortcomings? Perhaps. But, really... when going to the theater, is there something wrong with over-the-top showmanship?
Top: Tim Martin Gleason & Trista Moldovan. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Bottom: Sean MacLaughlin & Trista Moldovan. Photo by Cylia Von Tiedemann.
Performances of the Final National Tour of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA at Pantages Theatre continue through October 31, and are scheduled Tuesday through Friday at 8pm, Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm, and Sundays at 1pm and 6:30pm.
The show is produced by Cameron Mackintosh and The Really Useful Theatre Company.
Directed by Harold Prince, the show stars Tim Martin Gleason as The Phantom, with Trista Moldovan as the young soprano, Christine, and Sean MacLaughlin as Raoul. THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA will also feature Kim Stengel as Carlotta Giudicelli, D.C. Anderson as Monsieur André, Michael McCoy as Monsieur Firmin, Nancy Hess as Madame Giry, Luke Grooms as Ubaldo Piangi and Paloma Garcia-Lee as Meg. Kelly Jeanne Grant will be the alternative actress to fill the role of Christine.
Ticket prices start at $39 and can be purchased online at www.BroadwayLA.org, by phone at 1-800-982-ARTS(2787) or in person at the Pantages box office and all Ticketmaster outlets.
The Pantages Theatre is located at 6233 Hollywood Boulevard, just east of Vine Street.
For more information, please visit www.broadwayLA.org or PHANTOM's official site at www.ThePhantomOfTheOpera.com.