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BWW Review: National Tour Of Webber's PHANTOM OF THE OPERA Is A Dream Come True

There may be some who think THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, Andrew Lloyd Webber's gothic romance of a musical, is way past its sell-by date. I have had discussions with individuals and read comments online to say it's old fashioned, or boring, or the music is overblown, or the lyrics are banal - and other critiques. However, there are plenty of "phans" of the show - those who have seen the show multiple times, assemble collections of memorabilia, and defend the show where there is any whiff of chatter against it.

I must confess two things before I launch my own assessment of the new production now berthed at the Kennedy Center Opera House through mid-August. First confession: I fell in love with the score of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA 29 years ago, when I first heard parts of it during my college trip to London. When I first got my double-LP cast album of the original London cast (shipped to my home from Dress Circle!), I sneaked into my college's theatre to listen to the show on the big sound system with the lights off. I was hooked. I had not read the Gaston Leroux novel, but I loved the movie adaptations. Having been a fan of both the 1940s Claude Rains-MGM film version and the 1960s Herbert Lom-Hammer movie adaptation, Webber's score was a wonderful marriage of music to story, at least to my impressionable ears. I would have to wait a number of years to see the show, however.

Skip to 2003, in order to prepare for my next confession. Confession Number Two: seeing the show on Broadway was one of the biggest disappointments in my theatre going life. When I finally got to the Majestic Theatre to take my seat for this show that had rolled around between my eardrums for fifteen years, I was like a kid waiting for Santa Claus on December 24. What I got was not the PHANTOM of my dreams, but a tired production, with lackluster leads, and very little spark of energy. This was how this critic-proof show was going to be? I waited more than a decade to be disappointed by a performance phoned in by the Broadway company?

So, a score I loved upon first hearing was a huge letdown when I finally got to see it on stage - and on Broadway, no less? I would be consoled by my original cast album in the following years, only to be disappointed once again when the 2004 film version opened and did nothing to redeem the show for me. (I couldn't even get through listening to the film soundtrack one entire time.) I had more than a glimmer of hope when the 25th anniversary gala production was filmed during the performance at Royal Albert Hall. The leading players - Ramin Karimloo, Phantom; Sierra Boggess, Christine - as well as the rest of the sizable cast and orchestra gave a memorable performance, restoring the dream of seeing a production of the show that matched the one in my imagination.

Which brings me to Cameron Macintosh's new production, which I declare to be a dream come true.

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA I just experienced at the Kennedy Center renewed my faith in the show: it is a delight for all the senses, possesses dazzling stagecraft, and is performed by a cast that mines the romance, danger, and intrigue from the story and score.

The new aspects of this production center around the direction, choreography, and much of

"Masquerade," THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA
National Tour. (PHOTO CREDIT: Alistair Muir)

the design work, all of which work beautifully to serve the storytelling, and add elements of depth that I do not remember seeing before. Director Laurence Connor is making a name for himself with producer Macintosh and Lord Webber. Connor's work is on Broadway right now in THE SCHOOL OF ROCK, and in London with a new production of MISS SAIGON (that NYC may see next season), and he co-directed the current revival of LES MISERABLES. His work on this new production of PHANTOM is a revelation (not to take anything away from original director Harold Prince.) Connor's eye for detail - down to the papier-maché music box that figures in the story - is palpable. Working with new choreographer Scott Ambler - providing swirling ballets and other lyrical moments, Connor keeps the show moving in a cinematic style that practically dances from scene to scene. The relationships between the central characters of Christine the opera ingénue, Raoul the nobleman, and Erick the Phantom has been clarified and comes through loud-and-clear from start to finish. Throughout the musical, the stakes are raised, from the Phantom's growing seduction of Christine, to the final moments in the Phantom's newly designed lair.

The physical production is indeed impressive and the new designs- from the pseudo-operas of the Opera Populaire, Christine's dressing room, and the gilt and mirrored ballroom during "Masquerade" - give a genuine sense of spectacle while not sacrificing the intimacy of the scenes. The team of scenic designer Paul Brown and lighting designer Paule Constable have created a fitting world in which the gaslit and gothic story can truly come to life; the descent through the depths of the opera house and into the Phantom's lair gets such a makeover, it has to be seen to be believed. Adding creepy atmosphere are the video and projection designs of Nina Dunn; subtle yet very effective.

As a nod to one of the original designers, the stylish and sumptuous costume designs of the late Maria Björnson are still providing the period flair and opera opulence to the production, now overseen by costume coordinator Christine Rowland.

Julia Udine as Christine.
(Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy)

All the design and spectacle serves to give the performers free reign to bring the story to life, and this is a heavenly cast, as far as I am concerned. In the title role, Chris Mann commands the stage. Fans of THE VOICE might recognize his name as one of Christina Aguilera's finalists a few seasons back. Since then he has made recordings and made concert appearances; his performance as the Phantom was my introduction to him and he has gained another admiring fan. Mann's Phantom captures the tortured and passionate soul, the dangerous edge, and a tangible sexiness throughout his performance. His rendition of "Music of the Night" is a highlight among many sterling moments of the show.

Matching Mann as the Phantom's muse and doomed love interest is the stunning Kaitlyn Davis as Christine Daae, who normally plays the role of Princess and is an understudy for Julia Udine who is currently cast in the role. Udine is an experienced Christine who has performed in the Broadway version as well as originating the role in this new production. But having seen, Davis, I have no doubt in my mind she should eventually take this role full-time. Petite, delicate, and lovely, Davis is the very picture of a young lyric soprano making her first marks at the Paris Opera. As Christine, Davis finds the balance of wide-eyed innocence and burgeoning womanhood that is revealed as the musical progresses. Her voice shines through with clarity and effortless beauty throughout the score. When she sings with the Phantom or Raoul, the blending is sublime. If the stars align for this young talent, I would say she could rise from understudy to leading lady very soon.

Speaking of Raoul, Storm Lineberger (award-winner for most memorable name of the year) brings a strong baritone voice and a newfound depth to the role of the Phantom's romantic foil for Christine's affections. Among the other principal roles, there was not a weak link among the performers. David Benoit and Price Waldman made for a humorous and addled pair of opera managers; Anne Kanengeiser brought the stern nature and ominous air to the ballet mistress, Madame Giry; and Morgan Cowling, as dancer Meg, makes a strong impression as well.

As the Opera Populaire's prima donna, Jacquelynne Fontaine shines as the dictatorial diva jealous of young Christine's rising career. Never stepping into caricature, Fontaine's Carlotta straddles the fine line of comic relief and prideful scorn, plus she is an experienced opera vocalist and handles the thrills and trills provided by Webber's opera pastiches. As her tenor counterpart, Phumzile Sojola has the voice and comic timing to make a memorable Signor Piangi.

The pit orchestra under the direction of Dale Rieling, augmented by members of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, brings out the nuances of Webber's score. There was one segment, during one of Mann's Phantom solos when the organ (i.e. keyboard) overpowered the singer; otherwise the balance was right on the money between the singers and instrumentalists.

If you are not a fan of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, it is true this production will still leave you cold. Or you might be a huge fan of the original version, and this one will veer away from your memories too much. Needless to say, millions of fans love this show, even if critics do not always find love for it. I, for one, am glad there's a "new" PHANTOM production to dazzle and delight. This is the kind of production I first envisioned when I heard the score nearly 30 years ago. Now I have fully embraced the music of the night.

~ THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA runs 2 hours, 30 minutes with one intermission.

Follow Jeffrey Walker on Twitter @jeffwalker66


Andrew Lloyd Webber's THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA

Cameron Mackintosh's new production on national tour at the Kennedy Center Opera House

July 13 - August 20, 2016

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts - 2700 F Street, NW Washington, DC 20566. Tickets & Information: Click HERE or call (202) 467-4600; Toll-Free: (800) 444-1324; TTY: (202) 416-8524. Box Office Hours: Mon.-Sat., 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sun. and Holidays, noon-9 p.m

PHOTO CREDITS: (Top Photo) "The Journey," Chris Mann as the Phantom and Katie Travis as Christine - New Production of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA on National Tour. (Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy)

Opening Night: July 13, 2016

UPDATE: 07/25/2016 - The review has been corrected to indicate that Kaitlyn Davis performed the role of Christine on Friday, July 22, 2016, and not Julia Udine. Davis performed Friday night due to Udine's indisposition, but no announcement was made prior to the performance. ~ JW




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