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BWW Review: National Tour of PHANTOM Continues to Enchant Nashville Audiences

After 28 years, more than 10,000 performances on Broadway (where it reigns as the longest running show in history), countless tours and with rabid fans greeting the show at every stop, Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera continues to amaze and delight, as noted in its press opening at Nashville's Tennessee Performing Arts Center's Andrew Jackson Hall on March 11.

The audience's response? Far from tepid, to be certain: it was thunderous, ending with a standing ovation that fairly erupted when Katie Travis - the national tour's current Christine Daae - came onstage for her curtain call, only growing stronger when Vanderbilt University alumnus Chris Mann (he, of The Voice fame. who now takes on the challenging role of Gaston Leroux's disfigured, yet romantic anti-hero) took his own bow. Clearly, audiences still love The Phantom (during intermission, in the men's room, you could hear a chorus of untrained voices humming "Music of the Night," thus proving the near-universal knowledge, if not entirely a blanket appreciation of Webber's score), but there seemed to be a nagging sense of perplexed and resigned acceptance that nothing, no matter how iconic, remains unchanged after more than a quarter century in the cultural zeitgeist.

Chris Mann and Katie Travis in The Phantom of the Opera

One of musical theater's most enduring stage classics - running for 28 years is astounding (and no other show even comes close to that record) - The Phantom of the Opera has remained virtually unchanged since opening night, retaining Gillian Lynne's original choreography and Hal Prince's original direction, along with many of the design elements that have ensured its place in theatrical history. So it should come as no surprise that when the North American touring production was "spiffed up" and somehow reimagined by Matthew Bourne (overseen by producer Cameron Mackintosh, who became one of the richest men in the world, thanks to this behemoth of a show), the hackles of Phantom aficionados were raised. Fearing that changes to the show they love and fanatically follow would result in superfluous and unneeded elements that would inflict irreparable harm to Phantom, they were nonplussed and concerned, with the distinct possibility of anger to follow in short order: To them, at least, Phantom was perfect in its original packaging, as if an NRFB (never removed from box) designation is important for the organic evolution of musical theater.

Theater is a living and growing thing and change is not necessarily a bad thing. Whether you call it re-thinking or re-imagining - or whatever, for that matter - fresh eyes can see something new and invigorating in what has become a warhorse of theatrical proportions, making it more appealing and engaging for new audiences. And with this new mounting, under the skillful gaze of Bourne (whose gender-bending Swan Lake established him as a creative genius, while his later projects have only added more luster to his name and reputation), that's exactly what audiences now get with Phantom.

If you are an adherent to Phantom as you first remember seeing it, you will likely be rather taken aback by this version. Gone is the boat that the Phantom steers toward his hidden lair, the abducted Christine his only passenger; the steep grand staircase of the Paris Opera House no longer serves as a stunning set piece at the top of Act 2 for the presentation of the grandly elegant "Masquerade"; and there are several other minor, but noticeable, changes in the way the story is told with edits that will either focus attention on certain plot points while detracting from others. For the purist, it can be quite upsetting at most, or annoying at the very least.

But if you give yourself over to the Grand Guignol aspects of Leroux's timeless story - if you allow yourself to be transported by Webber's lushly beautiful score that harkens back to grand opera and the more plebeian aspects of operetta - you will still walk away deeply in love with the romanticism of the piece, your imagination sent soaring by the evocative storytelling. If, however, you look at the story too closely, peering under the hood, so to speak, you're likely to see cracks in the book, holes in the plot and the rather unnerving way in which a stalker is made into a musical theater heartthrob. Yet that seems a decidedly 21st century perspective: If you're in the audience for The Phantom of the Opera, you should certainly take it for what it's worth.

And what it's worth (other than the pot of gold that Webber and his creative team first discovered in the mid-1980s) is something grandly historic theater-wise, an epoch-establishing event in musical theater that ushered in such shows as Les Miserables, Miss Saigon and any number of other stage epics that have followed in its wake.

Bourne's reimagining (in concert with scenic designer Paul Brown, lighting design by Paule Constable and video and projections by Nina Dunn for Knifedge) of Phantom is, even without a boat silently gliding through the murky waters of abduction and potential sexual subjugation and towering candelabra, is visually stunning and a startling realization of what theater technology has become in a quarter century. There's this towering edifice (a scenic element of cylindrical shape) that becomes a variety of settings in the tale, most notably the entrance to the Phantom's lair: a remarkably constructed set of stairs that plunge you into the darkly brooding musician's realm. The grand staircase might be gone, but it is replaced by a gorgeous ballroom built of smoke and mirrors that showcases the performers and, not inconsequentially, the still-beautiful costumes designed by the late Maria Bjornson for the original production.

While some may argue that Webber's style of music - for this or any other of the musicals to his credit - is perhaps schmaltzy and overly sentimental, the sheer volume of his work represents a wide-ranging skill and integrity to his musical compositions to prove otherwise. His score for Phantom is sumptuous, reflective of the time and setting of this particular musical, evoking theater and opera of the 19th century (his pseudo-operas, if you will, of Hannibal and Don Juan Triumphant are certain to evoke both laughter and adulation for his witty renderings) to glorious effect. And, quite frankly, if you are unable to appreciate "Music Of the Night," "All I Ask of You," the deceptive simplicity of "Think of Me" or the pathos of "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again," might we suggest you make your way hence to a musical theater appreciation class. Musical theater exists to help fictional characters and, by extension, anyone to express themselves more eloquently and emotionally, to give voice to what exists in their minds - what could be better for the heart or more freeing for the soul?

Dale Rieling conducts the 16-member pit orchestra, which includes touring musicians and Nashville players for the two-week run at TPAC, to perform Webber's score with exuberance and commitment. Despite sound issues which seem to plague every production in Music City, no matter its pedigree or professional lineage, the score is almost startlingly memorable and superbly performed.

Storm Lineberger in The Phantom of the Opera

There are some directorial choices in this mounting that, perhaps manipulatively, deliver added jolts of drama to the already melodramatic proceedings - some easily noticeable, others subtle and discreet - but which, ultimately, make for a more compelling and engaging story. Laurence Connor's direction makes the focus of the tale more that of a traditional love triangle as the Phantom and Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny (Storm Lineberger), vie - in various romantic and robust ways - for the heart and hand of their beloved Christine.

Mann is in fine voice as The Phantom, performing the role with a musical flair that's expressive and tremendously effective and while he remains true to his character's literary roots, he manages to give him an edge that somehow seems contemporary while evoking images of a hero in operetta (can you imagine what Nelson Eddy could have done in this role? What? You say you don't know who he is? Look him up, gentle readers). Mann is passionate in his performance, almost over-the-top in his onstage persona - but what else can one be when playing a horribly disfigured, though rapturously appealing musician and vocal coach who possesses otherworldly powers of a sort that he learned in the sideshow of his youth. Walking that fine line between sensitivity and melodrama is challenging and Mann rises to the occasion with his finely hued performance.

Travis' exquisite voice and her total commitment to the role ensure that Christine remain the focus of the audience's attention and fervor - just as it does for her two suitors - and she portrays her character with a sense of determination that is only underscored by her respect for the pedagogy of the Phantom and her growing love for Raoul. Despite the massive theatricality inherent in the character of Christine, Travis manages to keep her grounded and genuine; her delivery of "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again" is hauntingly beautiful and packs an emotional wallop undimmed by the passage of time or the earlier renderings of the ballad by other actresses. Watching Travis deal with Christine's tossed and torn emotional connection to The Phantom and her obvious attraction for Raoul, underscored by her love for music and her talent for singing -- with all the trappings of the theater and of opera -- reminds me of Victoria Page's passion for the ballet in The Red Shoes, something I've never considered in previous viewings of Phantom of the Opera.

As Raoul, Lineberger gives a multi-dimensional and richly layered performance, playing him with a gripping physicality that shows off his stage presence to perfection and provides him the perfect opportunity to display his own strong vocals. His onstage relationship with Travis as Christine is palpable and heartfelt, making his competition with the Phantom for her heart and devotion all the more electrically charged.

The production's three commanding leads are given extraordinary support from the members of the ensemble, all of whom work seamlessly with one another to present a remarkable theatrical performance. Jacquelynne Fontaine is wildly extravagant as the opera diva Carlotta Guidicelli; David Benoit and Edward Staudenmayer (last seen in Nashville as the scene-stealing Sir Evelyn Oakleigh in the Rachel York-led Anything Goes from a few seasons past) are amusing as the theater's unknowing new owners; Phumzile Sojola is spot-on as the opera's mercurial leading tenor; and Anne Kanengeiser is effective as Madame Giry, the ballet mistress who somehow knows a great deal about the Phantom, to the point that she often delivers his written missives to direct an upcoming production of his new opera Don Juan Triumphant.

If you have long been a fan of The Phantom of the Opera, you are certain to find much to love in this national tour - or if you are a neophyte to the work which is justifiably considered a stage masterpiece by many - you should avail yourself of the opportunity to see it. This grandiloquent musical statement is onstage at TPAC through Sunday, March 20.

photos by Matthew Murphy

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From This Author Jeffrey Ellis