BWW Reviews: 'Don't Sit Under the Chandelier with Anyone Else But Me' - PHANTOM Haunts the Orpheum
When Gaston Leroux published THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA back in 1911, little did he realize the numerous chandeliers that would come crashing down through the decades, and I've witnessed a good number of them. First, in 1925, there was "the Man of a Thousand Faces," Lon Chaney, Sr., who frightened poor Mary Philbin (a well-done version, even IF the film was silent); then, for Universal in 1941, Claude Rains (Bette Davis' favorite co-star) was a more subdued vocal coach for soprano Susanna Foster (a wooden Nelson Eddy, alas, is a greater impending horror as "Raoul"). I could go on - even Herbert Lom, the actor who was the harried police superior to Peter Sellers' "Inspector Clousseau," took a swing on the old light fixture. (And let us not forget diminutive Paul Williams in the slightly askew PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE.) All of these pale, of course, in comparison to the legendary interpretation by Michael Crawford in the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, which first brought the audience to its feet in 1986.
PHANTOM OF THE OPERA's music and lyrics were, I confess, an auditory addiction for me. How many countless hours did I hum and soar within the confines of my cassette player's headphones, all the while contending with the noise of mowers and weedeaters as I worked in the yard. My love affair with the music of PHANTOM went on for a couple of decades -- at least. Then, in 2004, when Joel Schumacher helmed the extravagant film version with Gerard Butler behind the mask, I dutifully attended more than one showing (I know that the film did not do that well at the Box Office, but, aside from Mr. Butler's disappointing vocals, I enjoyed the visual and vocal excesses of the movie). Since then, PHANTOM has somewhat receded from my earbuds. Part of this is due to the backlash that Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals in general have experienced. One becomes, alas, inured even to the best of musicals. (I was also addicted to the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein, though now I prefer concert versions of their musicals - the originals are too long; the humor, too corny.) However, I digress.
PHANTOM has recently been retooled (evidently prompted by the expectations of a new generation of audiences), and the result is there for all to see and enjoy at the historic Orpheum Theatre. Producer Cameron Mackintosh, along with a new creative team, including director Laurence Connor, has created a PHANTOM with a much darker tone; this production is less surreal than others I have seen, and while there is plenty of spectacle to behold (that huge rotating set piece that creates steps leading below the opera house is "state of the art" technical wizardry). As if to offset the darker world this new version creates, there are special pyrotechnic effects that are worthy of a David Copperfield. It's a PHANTOM for those who prefer dark chocolate to milk chocolate. (My taste is for the latter, but that is why there are two types of capes swirling around the globe.)
Earlier in the week, I had attended a PHANTOM Event featuring the Phantom himself, Cooper Grodin, and Resident Director David Ruttura. As I studied the self-effacing, soft-spoken Mr. Grodin, I pondered whether he would be able to muster the requisite spectral stage presence to command the stage. In performance, his Phantom seems to fall somewhere between the original Michael Crawford interpretation (he can be beautifully delicate in the tender notes expressing his love for Christine; sophisticated and sarcastic in his dismissive "Notes" to the new owners of the Opera Populaire; ominous in his admonishments to those who deny his requests) and the heavy physical presence of Gerard Butler in the (unfairly maligned) film version. Slight of build, he is, if anything, more human, more accessible. Certainly, no one could argue with that supple vocal range. He has a beautiful, Josh Groban-like voice.
As the "Trilby" to this "Svengali," lovely Julia Udine's performance as "Christine" ranks right up there with the best. She is not only vulnerable and worshipful of her "unseen tutor," but capable of showing strength when the role calls for it. Her performance is as touching as that of Emmy Rossum in the film version. Ben Jacoby as "Raoul" completes this triangle, and his vocal strengths and physicality make him a worthy challenger for Christine's affections.
Like LES MISERABLES, PHANTOM needs moments of humor to offset those sweeping, serious numbers; and the characters of diva "Carlotta" (a properly imperious Jacquelynne Fontaine), Monsieurs "Andre" (Edward Staudenmayer) and "Firmin" (David Benoit) and pompous tenor "Piangi" (Frank Viveros) are wonderfully in character (much like the "Thenardiers" in LES MIS). Ms. Fontaine is a particular delight as the petulant star. (While "Prima Donna" is not one of the most frequently performed of the show's musical numbers, I've always relished hearing it.) The scenes in which these characters share their "Notes from O.G." lighten the proceedings in a most gratifying way.
There's no denying it: PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, either in its original version or its reivamp, is a magnificent juggernaut of a production. It's like taking a cruise on a theatrical QUEEN MARY, and no amount of critical nitpicking is likely to make a difference one way or the other. To point out any slight defects is likely to have no more effect than sending out "Deputy Barney Fife" to do battle with Goliath. Just ask any one of the sellout audience that rose in rapturous applause as soon as the curtain fell. Through October 5.