BWW Review: PHANTOM OF THE OPERA enchants at Saenger Theatre

BWW Review: PHANTOM OF THE OPERA enchants at Saenger TheatreBroadway's longest-running production is well over 30 years, but still finds ways to remain incredibly "phantasmic."
Currently running at the Saenger Theatre is Cameron Mackintosh's revamped touring production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, which at last returns to eager New Orleans audiences this March after last being performed at the Saenger Theatre in November 2014.
Based on the classic novel "Le Fantôme de L'Opera" by Gaston Leroux, PHANTOM tells the story of a masked figure who lurks deep in the catacombs of the Opera Populaire, exercising a reign of terror over its inhabitants. He falls passionately in love with the innocent ingénue Christine and devotes himself to turning the young soprano into the next operatic star, both by nurturing her talent and stopping anyone who dares to cross him. It's Beauty and the Beast but with just a little bit more murder involved.
Billed as a "re-imagined" production, diehard PHANTOM fans will take notice of the notable changes instantly. Gone is the steep grand staircase of the Paris Opera House, which used to serve as a stunning set piece at the top of Act 2 for "Masquerade." The gondola ride floating around a stage filled with candelabras and dry ice is another iconic image vastly reduced. But with Paul Brown's revitalized sets, and Paule Constable's mesmerizing lighting design this production breathes new life into the classic musical.
Purists do not need to fret though. The chandelier still comes crashing down, and for those well within range like me may get hit with rubbery transparent "glass" as a special surprise. Just one more added layer that brings PHANTOM to whole new life.
Audiences can expect explosions, gunfire, and pyrotechnics beyond the usual smoke and mirrors. Fight sequences have been heightened, and the horrific murders are in plain view. But the most astonishing element of all is the massive cylindrical wall which swivels, expands, and opens up like a pop-up storybook to offer a 360-degree tour of the opera house. And it's all done with absolutely flawless transitions. One cannot help but lose themselves in the spectacle of it all during grand numbers such as "Masquerade" and "Phantom of the Opera."
Those who may feel quick to judge the revamped production should rest at ease. Andrew Lloyd Webber's iconic music and the Tony Award-winning costume designs by the late Maria Björnson are well-preserved, and Webber's and Richard Stilgoe's script also remains mostly intact. We must remember that theatre as an art form is a living, growing entity and change is sometimes necessary to keep up with evolving times and changing audiences.
Directed by Laurence Connor, PHANTOM still emits a sense of wonder and the macabre. The combination of talents from its cast, consisting of newcomers and Broadway vets, make for a compelling and engaging story.
In the title role, Quentin Oliver Lee is overall triumphant in his sensitive interpretation of the tragic, disfigured outcast behind the mask. With a resonant voice that haunts the stage - even when he's not on it - Lee reigns with a commanding physical presence, towering over his scene partners. His spell was initially broken during the first act as his voice seemed straining his notes out at times. However, by the second act, he sang with the intensity you expect from the Phantom.
Notably, Lee's Phantom is presented as more internally conflicted than outwardly menacing, giving him more humanity than seen in previous productions. It's a shame, however, during "Point of No Return" he is entirely masked. We see only one side of the seduction, where traditionally both Christine and her phantom are being seduced at the same time.
Eva Tavares as the bright-eyed chorus girl Christine Daae is enthralling to watch. Tavares's performance captures the ingénue's fearful innocence and balances well with her compassion for the tortured phantom. With a lovely soprano voice, Tavares's singing can only be described as the sound of starlight. She captures our hearts just like her two suitors. "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again" is a hauntingly endearing highlight.
Jordan Craig as Raoul, Christine's childhood friend-turned-lover, gives a richly layered performance. Their duet, "All I Ask of You" is electrically charged with their devotion towards each other. His love for Christine is heartfelt and pure, but Craig also readily emits jealousy of the Phantom's bond with Christine, giving him much more depth.
The three leads are supported by a talented ensemble cast. Standout performances include Trista Moldovan and Phumzile Sojola as the opera's resident stars, Carlotta and Piangi. Extravagant, gifted, and with the right amount of sass, Moldovan's Carlotta has earned every right to be a prima donna. Sojola sang with gusto as the opera's leading tenor. David Benoit and Edward Staudenmayer are amusing as the theater's unknowing new owners, bringing the right amount of comedy to the roles. I had left the theatre wondering if I have ever laughed so much during a production of PHANTOM before. Kristie Dale Sanders is effective as the astute Madame Giry, and Emily Ramirez was pleasing as her daughter Meg Giry.
For those who have never experienced this cultural phenomenon of musical theatre, expect spectacle from PHANTOM beginning right with the first blast of organ music to the mystifying final scene. If you have long been a fan of PHANTOM, you are sure to find much to love in this national tour if you can fend off comparing it to its predecessors. Allow yourself to be transported by the "music of the night."


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