BWW Reviews: THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA is a Beautiful Production, Well Worth the Trip from the Coachella Valley and Inland Empire
The new touring production of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, currently playing at the Segerstrom Center in Costa Mesa, is a must-see, well worth the trip from the Inland Empire and Coachella Valley. The music, costumes, and sets are hauntingly beautiful and most of the performances are superb.
This new production, like the version that has played since 1986 in London and 1988 in New York, is produced by Cameron Mackintosh and the Really Useful Theatre Company, with the addition of NETworks Presentations. Andrew Lloyd Webber's music, almost all of Charles Hart's and Richard Stilgoe's book and lyrics, and most of the late Maria Björnson's incredible costumes are still part of the show, but there are nonetheless significant changes from the almost 30-year-old production. New choreography by Scott Ambler has replaced Gillian Lynne's, and a set by Paul Brown has replaced Ms. Björnson's.
The new orchestrations are more spooky than David Cullen's originals, in keeping with director Laurence Connor's emphasis on the story's horror roots. This version is much more grim than the Harold Prince-directed original, although it increases the comedy in the Hannibal scene and the scenes involving the two hapless managers. Mr. Prince had the Phantom glide in and out committing increasingly lethal acts from behind the scenes. Mr. Connor makes his Phantom (Chris Mann) more visible - this Phantom, disguised as a stagehand, murders Joseph Buquet out in the open. Mr. Connor's Phantom also seems more sophisticated than Mr. Prince's, which makes the new Phantom all the more terrifying. He is no longer afraid to touch Christine tenderly in the early scenes, and graduates to physical abuse.
The Phantom also looks a bit different from Broadway and West End Phantoms, with new mask and wig designs. His costumes and prosthetic make-up are closer to those in the 2004 movie - only the right side of his face is damaged. The tragedy of this Phantom's face is, in some ways, greater than in the original. This Phantom can see how extraordinarily handsome he was meant to be; the face that denies him "the joys of the flesh" would have had the opposite effect had its right side matched its left.
The set is completely different. The chandelier still falls spectacularly, but it no longer rises from the stage during the overture. Instead, the touring chandelier is already suspended, covered, from the ceiling as the audience files in. Even though the chandelier's initial journey is curtailed, there are nonetheless impressive special effects during the overture - effects that are more high-tech than on Broadway and in the West End. The pyrotechnics, in my view, surpass those in the original musical.
One change that has created controversy is elimination of the grand staircase that has appeared in all previous incarnations of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. I found the "Masquerade" scene lacking without it, although the new mirrored set is dazzling. However, the set reduces the Phantom literally, and in my opinion, figuratively, to the same level as the revelers; he already looks less sinister because his death-head costume is gone, replaced by one similar to Gerard Butler's. Also, the absence of the animal-costumed dancers, who perform a separate routine from the main dance number, allows the dancing to become repetitive. Nevertheless, the strobe effects after the Phantom tells Christine (Katie Travis, with Celia Hottenstein appearing at some performances) that her voice is his - a subtle amendment of the words - add much to the already eye-catching scene. Many theatergoers are likely to prefer the new version of "Masquerade" over the old because of its visual appeal.
Another major change in the set is the elimination of the travelator, which simulates a long ramp that the Phantom and Christine use to journey to the lair during the title number. The new, higher-tech set is a rounded tower with external steps that move out and back in. The effect is breathtaking.
The standout among the three lead performers, in my view, is Katie Travis as Christine Daae, whose singing and interpretation surpass those of some of the most iconic Christines. Ms. Travis's version of the character, again in my opinion, evolves more dramatically than other Christines into a strong and mature woman. A change in lyrics to one verse of "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again," the song she sings to her late father in the cemetery, helps emphasize the character's growth, but the real difference appears to be in Ms. Travis's and Mr. Connor's interpretation of the role, and in Ms. Travis's skill in conveying Christine's maturation.
Both Mr. Mann, who was a finalist on THE VOICE in 2012, and Storm Lineberger (Raoul) have beautiful tenor voices. Mr. Mann demonstrates the Phantom's masculinity in "The Music of the Night"; his rendition is erotic and charismatic. Nonetheless, his and Mr. Connor's decision to have Mr. Mann "sing-speak" so many of the lines in the song diminishes the power of "The Music of the Night"; the song could have been a knockout had it employed the full measure of Mr. Mann's vocal capability.
Raoul needs to be more than a nice person. The police are willing to take orders from the young viscount and Christine resents Raoul's pushing her into serving as bait to catch the Phantom, but Mr. Lineberger in most scenes does not choose to play Raoul as forceful. A major exception is in the cemetery scene. In the new production, Raoul physically defends Christine after "Wandering Child," causing literal sparks to fly. The on-stage action, which resembles the fight scene between Raoul and the Phantom in the 2004 movie, shows that Raoul is capable of employing violence when necessary. I'd prefer Mr. Lineberger and Mr. Connor to have chosen this more edgy characterization of Raoul throughout the show.
The actors playing the secondary characters all deliver top-notch performances. Jacquelynne Fontaine (Carlotta), a former Miss California, is an opera singer with a great deal of comedic ability. Frank Viveros, who plays Ubaldo Piangi, portrays his character as an incompetent buffoon and a supercilious jerk, constantly making faces and rolling his eyes. I would prefer to see fewer scornful facial expressions, but Mr. Viveros's performance generates lots of laughs and his singing, like Ms. Fontaine's, is superb. The two managers, played by David Benoit and Palm Springs native Edward Staudenmayer; the two Giry women, Anne Kanengeiser (Madame Giry) and Alexandra Pernice (Morgan Cowling's temporary substitute as Meg the night I saw the show); the odious Joseph Buquet (Allan Snyder); and the rest of the company all ace their roles.
The production has numerous surprises from all members of the cast, including subtle and not-so-subtle changes that create additional mystery. One significant change occurs in the last few moments of the show because the performer playing the Phantom no longer has a hollowed-out chair in which he can hide. I'm not going to say anything else about the change; if you want to find out what it is and attempt to figure out how the effect works, in the words of the Phantom, "GO-O-O-O-O!"
THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA will play at the Segerstrom Center in Costa Mesa from August 5th through 16th, after which it will appear in San Francisco from August 19th through October 4th. (Ticket buyers in San Francisco should be aware that Chris Mann will be on vacation from September 28th through October 4th). The tour will return to Southern California one final time, for a run from October 7th through the 18th at the San Diego Civic Theatre.
The Segerstrom Center is located at South Coast Plaza, 600 Town Center Dr, Costa Mesa, CA 92626. The telephone number for tickets is (714) 556-2787. The primary box office is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Phones are open for sales daily from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. and remain open on show nights until the latest performance at the Center begins. Tickets are also available on the Center's Web site, http://www.scfta.org/ . There are still seats available for THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, especially in the balcony.
The San Diego Civic Theatre has just opened ticket sales for THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. The theater is located at 3rd Avenue & B Street, San Diego, CA 92101. The advance sales window is located at 1100 3rd Avenue, and is open from Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tickets are available by telephone at (800) 430-8903 or (619) 570-1100 and by Internet on www.broadwaysd.com .
For a related article about the tour's Southern California stops, with additional photos, click on the following link:
Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy