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BWW Review: THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA Makes a Believer at Dr. Phillips Center

In the summer of 1998, as part of my high school's drama club, I made my first trip to New York City. Over the course of seven days, I saw eight musicals, both on and Off-Broadway. While I was already a devout musical theatre fan, seven of those eight solidified my love for the art form, while one left me cold, and slightly angry. That show was The Phantom of the Opera. I have spent the past 16 years saying that Andrew Lloyd Webber and Charles Hart's musical was the worst Broadway or touring show that I have ever seen. So, when it was announced that its newly reimagined staging (by director Laurence Connor) would be the first touring production to grace Orlando's Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, I was honestly hopeful that as I aged, my appreciation for the longest running show in Broadway history would have done so as well; and I am happy to say that it most certainly did.

(Later this week, Orlando editors Matt Tamanini and Kimberly Moy, a PHANTOM obsessive, will discuss the production from their vastly different viewpoints in a BroadwayWorld Orlando column.)

To start, many of the structural issues that I had with the show all those years ago, unfortunately, remain. The storytelling is often rushed and fuzzy, character development is nonexistent, and the terror that the eponymous character should command, is never fully realized. But as I sat in the gorgeous 2,700 seat Walt Disney Theatre, those things mattered little to me. The immense talent of the company, the impressive precision of the production, and the iconic melodies had me thoroughly immersed in the world of the Opéra Populaire.

While the sweeping, majestic music remains the same, little else in the PHANTOM's new tour does. The

staging, sets, choreography, and effects have all been updated, and for a very specific reason. As Frank Viveros, who plays Ubaldo Piangi, told me last week (as part of a video interview that will debut later this week on BroadwayWorld Orlando), the show has evolved over the past two and a half decades just as the available technology has done so over the same time period. Nearly all of these technical changes work like magic, despite what appears to be a t-shirt cannon that the Phantom uses to take down the famous chandelier.

While I have very few memories of the Broadway show's technical specifics, I was extremely impressed with this production's visuals. Though the sets feel a bit claustrophobic, a fact likely necessitated by its touring nature, every surprising new location visited provided an even more elegant opportunity for set designer Paul Brown to shine. In fact, I cannot ever recall a more beautiful tableau on stage, accompanied by equally glorious vocals, than this "Masquerade." The costumes, which are the only design element remaining from the original production, the choreography (by Scott Ambler), and the ensemble's harmonies were all gorgeous. Additionally, the orchestra, a mix of local and traveling musicians, was extraordinary from overture to finale.

As a rule, anytime that the show's ensemble, especially the Corps de Ballet, was on stage, there was an extra air of energy added to the proceedings.

The Orlando tour stop was the second for the show's newest Phantom and Christine Daaé, Chris Mann and Katie Travis. Mann, a classical recording artist and a finalist on Season Four of NBC's THE VOICE, is clearly the name draw of the production, however, his lack of theatrical experience was evident throughout the show, while his costar Travis created a stunning ingénue in every way.

From her first notes, Travis proved that she possessed both the soprano and acting chops to take on this challenging role. It could be very difficult for any Christine to communicate the illogical pull that she feels towards the Phantom. While the script does not give the character many opportunities to express this development, Travis takes advantage of every small moment available to embody this central push and pull. She is an extremely strong addition to the "Phantom Phamily." Interestingly, last summer Travis played Cosette in LES MISERABLES at St. Louis' Muny Theatre, opposite both Broadway's current and longest tenured Phantoms, Norm Lewis and Hugh Panaro.

On the other hand, Mann's performance seemed weighed down by his newness to the role and the theatrical stage in general. While his voice was certainly impressive (just as it was when he performed in the Walt Disney Theatre's opening event, BROADWAY & BEYOND), it didn't seem to thoroughly serve the character. Rather than the dark, mysterious, brooding voice that is often associated with the Phantom, Mann's singing was too nasal and tonally bright. His vocal placement seemed to be too far forward, making his sound more like that of an insecure teenage stalker, rather than a menacing creature with the power to manipulate Christine at will. Additionally, his reliance on modifying vowels to hit the more difficult notes, regularly shook me out of the world that the music created. It wasn't until the final conflict in his lair that he displayed the vocal power of which he is capable; which, coincidently, resulted in the show's grave nature finally coming through.

For example, "The Music of the Night," one of the show's most beloved songs, came across far too romantic, with little, to no, sign of the hypnotic mind control Mann's Phantom was exercising over Christine.

Despite feeling somewhat underwhelmed by the show's leading man, the supporting cast was not only extremely talented, but added some unexpected humor to the evening as well. Storm Lineberger played the third point in Christine's love-triangle, Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny. Lineberger was physically and vocally strong enough to make a believable adversary for the Phantom. Former Miss America finalist Jacquelynne Fontaine made for quite the entertaining, if not difficult, diva Carlotta; and Viveros was equally as appealing as her tenor counterpart. Monsieur Firmin (David Benoit) and Monsieur André (Edward Staudenmayer) were especially funny in the "Notes" scenes, and Anne Kanengeiser as Madame Giry gave the show a strong, confident presence.

No matter your preconceived notions about The Phantom of the Opera, it would be a great disappointment for any theatre fan to miss this inaugural Orlando tour stop. There are eight performances remaining before PHANTOM leaves The City Beautiful on Sunday, December 14th. To purchase your tickets to this exciting production of The Phantom of the Opera, visit the Dr. Phillips Center's website, or call 844-513-2014.

Did you make a trip to Paris to see this one-of-a-kind theatrical experience? Did you go into the show as a PHANTOM fan or hater? Let me know what you thought in the comments below, or on Twitter @BWWMatt. Also, don't forget to "Like" BroadwayWorld Orlando on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Photo Credit:
1) Katie Travis and Chris Mann: Matthew Murphy | The Really Useful Group
2) Cast performing "Masquerade": Alastair Muir | The Really Useful Group
3) Jacquelynne Fontaine: Matthew Murphy | The Really Useful Group

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