BWW Reviews: Reimagined PHANTOM OF THE OPERA Tour Makes US Debut in Providence
Please note: this review contains spoilers.
The Opera Ghost is haunting again. Three years after the US touring company of The Phantom of the Opera bowed for a final time in Los Angeles, a new anniversary production of Phantom brings its curtain up in Providence, Rhode Island.
The tour's much-touted, reimagined staging is a non-replica mounting of The Phantom of the Opera. While Andrew Lloyd Webber's glorious score and most (though not all) of the script and lyrics remain unchanged, the tour features a total redesign of Phantom's props, sets, and many of its costumes, as well as a complete revision of blocking and choreography.
Any non-replica production opens in the shadow of Hal Prince, Gillian Lynne, and the late Maria Björnson's original Phantom, a theatrical masterpiece that has captivated audiences worldwide for nearly three decades. Still, many of the tour's new visuals do work well, including the Opera's ghostly present-to-past transition during the overture, the vibrant dress rehearsal scene in Hannibal, the Phantom and Christine's descent to the underground lair, a suitably bacchanalian Don Juan Triumphant, and a very effective and swiftly-falling chandelier.
While these are examples of the tour's more engaging and thoughtful revisions, regrettably, the tour does not entirely live up to its "spectacular" billing. Other changes directly and negatively impact characterization throughout the performance. In several crucial scenes, the new tour abandons not only the look of the London and Broadway productions, but their heart and soul as well.
As Phantom, Mark Campbell's musical numbers showcase his rich vocal talent, and though he occasionally lacks the passion and full emotion essential in a truly compelling Opera Ghost, he also demonstrates a strong range in his delivery. However, the tour's staging and blocking disservice the Phantom from the start; in a bid for realism over melodrama, this "darker" interpretation of The Phantom of the Opera robs the title character of much of his mystery and sophistication.
The connection between the Phantom and Christine suffers most for this, and "Music of the Night" - the most widely-recognized and iconic musical number in the show - especially destabilizes the romance of their relationship. The Phantom keeps Christine blindfolded for much of the song, undermining the enchanting, dreamlike quality of the scene, while the new blocking repeatedly suggests (both in "MOTN" and again in Final Lair) that the Phantom holds a greater passion and esteem for his own music than he does for Christine.
The bittersweet, tender moment that generally closes "Stranger than You Dreamt It" is here played very dispassionately, and earlier in the scene (a shadow of things to come in act two), the Phantom furiously drags Christine to the floor by her hair after she sees his face. "Wandering Child" is another tough sell, the dramatic tension sapped from the characters' interactions as the whole of the graveyard scene takes place at stage-level. Where the Phantom once stalked the ledge of the mausoleum above Christine and Raoul, mesmerizing her from a distance and menacingly shooting fire from his staff, all three characters are now so physically close together that the Phantom and Raoul - literally - end up in fisticuffs.
The Phantom and Christine's complex and complicated relationship continues to erode, scene by scene, until the Final Lair. While the Phantom can and should be viewed as dangerous, even somewhat unhinged, by this point in the plot, he should also emerge as a pitiable character worthy of Christine's - and the audience's - compassion. Actors approach this most intense and deeply-emotional finale with varying levels of physicality, but the tour's Phantom acts with unequivocal violence toward Christine. He forcibly laces her into a wedding gown (the absence of a mirror bride in "Music of the Night" minimizes the import of that costume change), chokes her until she is nearly unconscious, and uses her as a human shield when Raoul arrives to rescue her. The Phantom also bodily pins Christine to his bed twice, an uncomfortable and troubling inclusion that weakens what should be one of the most heartrending moments in the story.
Unfortunately, Raoul's character is also notably diminished by the new staging. Ben Jacoby brings great energy to the role, but Christine's childhood friend - the upstanding, sweet and gentlemanly Raoul - becomes someone much harsher on tour. Raoul is portrayed as very much the entitled Vicomte, demanding and haughty in his interactions with the managers and markedly impatient with Christine. The rooftop scene presents less as a declaration of love than a one-sided conversation where Raoul lacks in understanding and comprehension. During "All I Ask of You," Christine throws her hands up and walks away from him; indeed, by "Notes II," Christine actually slaps Raoul in an attempt to finally get him to listen to her.
Of the three leads, Christine's character remains the most familiar and recognizable, and Julia Udine shines brightly in the role. Her Christine has a backbone; Udine ably portrays both Christine's innocence and later distresses, but she demonstrates an inner fire as well, and it comes through even in the character's most fragile moments. Udine is well suited to the demanding vocals of the role, delivering a playful and impressive cadenza during "Think of Me" and a very lovely rendition of the second act's "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again."
Jacquelynne Fontaine and Frank Viveros steal every scene as the Opera's leading stage couple, La Carlotta and Signor Piangi. Fontaine turns in an absolutely fabulous performance as prima donna Carlotta, working herself up in a properly theatrical huff without ever losing the character in hyperbole. Viveros has a fine tenor voice and, by remaining in-character at every moment and adding any number of small-yet-meaningful gestures, he effectively makes Piangi a loveably dim and entirely memorable personage.
The production is hit-or-miss - sometimes hit-and-miss - in the staging of other central scenes. The first-act journey to the Phantom's lair features a circular stairway, where the subterranean passageways of the Palais Garnier seem to appear and disappear at the Phantom's command. That stage piece works very well and adds a spark of magic to the scene, but the boat ride across the underground lake is notably truncated and rendered with zero depth perception, in no way suggesting the duo's watery journey covers any distance at all.
During "All I Ask of You," Christine and Raoul now share the stage with a looming statute of Apollo's Lyre. Although this is a faithful nod to the rooftop architecture of the Paris Opera and to this scene in Gaston Leroux's original novel, it completely erodes the mystery and any element of surprise from the Phantom's appearance at the close of the duet. From a purely practical standpoint, audience members seated to the front and far left side of the house will miss a good portion of the song and its reprise, as their view of the scene is blocked by the far wall of the rotating stage's drum.
The rotating stage causes problems in other parts of the production as well. The drum tends to box settings in, leaving the far sides of the stage dark and bare while overcrowding the center. The managers' office, for example, is now a red-hued, claustrophobic environment. Given the sheer number of people involved in "Notes," "Prima Donna" and "Notes II," the tour has too much going on visually to properly focus attention on the characters and the import of their lyrics. In fact, the tour moves "Prima Donna" right out of the managers' room and to a hybrid version of the office's hallway and Carlotta's dressing room. Also, Christine's cluttered dressing area takes up so much performance space that the ethereal "recreating Degas" ballet rehearsal during "Angel of Music" is entirely eliminated.
In "Masquerade," the set opens into a glittering hall of mirrors. Though the mirrored ballroom has merit as a set piece, the loss of the grand staircase of the Palais Garnier diminishes the breathtaking visual quality of the scene, especially during the Phantom's entrance. Rather than the Phantom "magically" appearing through a trapdoor in the midst of the crowd, he strolls in from the rear part of the stage (albeit, through a mirror) while the rest of the company is dancing. The Phantom also loses the advantage of his towering height on the stairs, making his threats and demands significantly less intimidating; indeed, he nonchalantly hands his Don Juan score to the managers instead of challengingly tossing it downstage.
Björnson's sumptuous "Masquerade" costumes are a mere shadow of their former selves. The men dress uniformly in plain black tuxedos with small matador-style capelets, nullifying Andre's once-humorous "bright new year" line. The women's ball gowns display hints of their original characters in coloring, but these costumes are simple frocks, not ornate fancy dress pieces for a masquerade. The musical quartet - including the cymbal-playing monkey that symbolically mimics the Phantom's own music box - has been removed as well. Even the delicate frills and spangles on Christine's Star Princess gown have been trimmed back, and the headpiece is barely noticeable at a distance. But worse still is the revision of the Phantom's majestic and imposing Red Death costume. Gone are the articulated skull mask, the highly-plumed hat, the rich red velvet and gold piping; instead, the Phantom makes his entrance in basic black pants, a military-style red jacket, and a gold-colored version of his iconic half mask.
Seasoned Phantom fans will likely be surprised by the anniversary tour's changed look and particularly by its darker tone. While this production is intriguing as a bold reinterpretation of a cultural phenomenon, it does not touch the heart so readily as its predecessor.
The Phantom of the Opera plays the Providence Performing Arts Center through Saturday, December 7, 2013. Tickets can be purchased online at www.ppacri.org, by phone (401) 421-ARTS (2787), or by visiting the box office at 220 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI. Ticket prices range from $58-$105 and discounted rates are available for groups of 20 or more.