BWW Reviews: Fiery Operatic Drama Unfolds in New Production of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA at Shea's Buffalo Theatre
Like visiting an old friend who you haven't seen for 25 years, revisiting a classic musical can often remind you again how much you loved it in your youth. I remember the excitement as a college student in 1989 of buying a rear balcony seat from a ticket scalper on 42nd Street to see the sold out show with the crashing chandelier. The cost was 3 times the face value, but I felt lucky to get in to see the London craze that was then the buzz of Broadway. Now a quarter of a century later, like that old friend, the melodramatic story of the deformed man who lives beneath the Paris Opera House could seem like an aging relic.
Luckily, 2015 brings a lavish new production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "The Phantom of The Opera" that opened at Shea's Buffalo Theatre on Wednesday and it has received glorious new sets by Paul Brown, while retaining most of Maria Bjornson's Tony Award winning costume designs. Those familiar with the original 1988 Hal Prince production that has been playing on Broadway for over 26 years may at first be put off by some of Laurence Connor's new direction, but rest assured different is not worse, or necessarily better in some cases. This musical tale is based on Gaston Leroux's novel "Le Fantome de L'Opera," and can often be macabre, grotesque and melodramatic. It appears that Connor has swayed more towards the macabre in this production, since we often visualize on stage the Phantom's deceitful acts of destruction and death. Some of these choices make our titular character so unlikable that you wonder how Christine could possibly be entranced by this monster.
Chris Mann, a finalist on NBC's THE VOICE, recently stepped into the leading role of this national tour. While at first appearing and sounding a bit young, he demonstrated a full voiced baritone in the lower register. Unfortunately, this role taxes his singing in the exclamatory upper notes, causing him to sound a bit strained. He did master the necessary falsetto head voice needed for the climax of "The Music of the Night" and the full house was enthralled by him. This staging literally fills the role with fire and brimstone, as fire ignites many times around the stage as the Phantom curses his victims, often to blinding, yet dramatic effect. Our brooding leading man seemed more possessed and demonic than other incarnations, but these choices are more in keeping with the original source's themes. I thought how different this new version is from the lesser known musical "PHANTOM," by Maury Yeston, that plays much more as a musical comedy.
The ingenue from the corps de ballet, Christine, is played by Katie Travis. Utterly believable as the waif like ballerina, Travis blooms throughout the evening to become the leading lady of the Paris Opera. Her pretty voice, though small, seems effortless and shone in her act II solo "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again." She developed excellent chemistry with Mann, and her final scene in the Phantom lair was appropriately heartbreaking. During their final kiss, the Phantom seems to have been directed to remain stiff and awkward, at a time when he should have melted from awkwardness into savouring the moment. This Phantom postures more along the lines of the Lon Chaney silent film than the version we have known for the last quarter century.
Jacquelynne Fontaine was perfection in the role of Carlotta Guidicelli, the reigning prima donna of the Opera House. Her full voiced soprano has some of the most challenging moments in the show, and she tossed off high notes and coloratura runs with aplomb. She has mastered the diva gestures that would make any great opera soprano and she shone whenever taking the stage. She was ably accompanied by Frank Viveros as the Italian Tenor Ubaldo Piangi.
Christine's young love interest, Raoul, played by Storm Lineberger, seemed a bit stiff on opening night. While full of romantic bravado, his voice was overpowered at times by Travis' in their duets. The two opera house impresarios were perfectly cast, with the brilliant Edward Staudenmayer as Monsieur Andre. His secure singing voice was equally matched by his comedic timing. Monsieur Firmin (David Benoit) lent some levity to the evening's darkness. And speaking of darkness, Madame Giry (Anne Kanengeiser) was the imperious Mistress of the Corps de Ballet. Picture Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca, and you get the picture. She was stern and in total control until she too recoiled in fear at the edge of the Phantom's lair. New choreography by Scott Ambler was deftly executed by the Corps de Ballet, but seemed a bit intrusive and overdone during the Christine/Phantom duet "The Point of No Return."
Such magnificent sets have rarely been seen in a touring production, and it convinced me that maybe it is time for Broadway to get a look at this rendition. The rotating turntable that brought Christine and the Phantom down into the bowels of the Paris Opera House, and it's underground rivers, was magical and eerie. Floating stairs spookily erupted from the wall as the pair descended and then retracted again, leaving no way out. The opening of ACT II was moved from the grand staircase of the Opera House to a gilt mirrored salon. I for one was glad that the mannequin figures from the Hal Prince staging didn't make an appearance here. The towering statues on the roof of the Opera House and later the cemetery were beautifully lit by lighting designer Paule Constable. The glorious 1 ton chandelier was newly designed for this production and blended in seamlessly with the Tiffany chandeliers that grace Shea's auditorium. It's crash at the end of Act I had the audience below it cowering.
In a musical about opera, it would be remiss not to mention the the appropriately melodramatic staging of the mock operas "Hannibal," "Il Muto," and "Don Juan Triumphant." Brown's set pieces and detailed backdrops were reminiscent of 19th Century grand opera, while Bjornson's exquisite costumes and wig designs were sumptuously evocative of the era. The 17 piece orchestra was lush and the sound design by Mick Potter was fascinating, as the Phantom's voice was projected in multiple areas of the theatre as if he were everywhere at once. While subtlety has never been the calling card of Webber's, his PHANTOM reigns as the longest running musical in Broadway history and has been viewed by over 130 million people worldwide. Audiences love it's grandiousity and sentimentality. It deserves this newly rethought production, and hopefully many more throughout the years. Yes, musical styles and tastes change, and the British sung-through megamusical imports from the 1990's have been replaced by the juke box musical of the 21st Century. But a visit with an old friend, who looks different than they did 25 years ago, can conjure up cherished memories, and will still remain the beloved old friend you remember.
THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA play at Shea's Buffalo Theatre from March 18-29, 2015. To purchase tickets, visit www.ticketmaster.com, call 1-800-745-3000 or visit Shea's Box Office, 650 Main Street, Buffalo, Ticket prices start at $38,