He lurks in the catacombs of Paris’ Palais Garnier, gliding across the opera house’s subterranean lake in a gondola and coming out to terrorize performers and audiences with flashes of fire and a crashing chandelier.
A man who conceals his grotesque face behind a mask and wears his heart on his lacy sleeve, he is of course the tortured antagonist at the center of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “The Phantom of the Opera,” Broadway’s longest-running show and known the world over simply as “Phantom.”
This grand-scale horror tale with the love triangle at its core recently got a magnificent makeover in the form of a newly conceived national tour that plays at the Fox Theatre through Sunday.
With its 52-member cast, epic sets and booming organ-and-synthesizer score, producer Cameron Mackintosh’s updated treatment of “Phantom” is a visual knockout, chockablock with gorgeous details. Judging by Saturday night’s euphoric and adoring house, which forgave technical difficulties that caused the show to pause for several minutes, the blockbuster that first played London in 1986 could sail on for another 30 years.
For Webber and lyricist Charles Hart’s wretchedly sentimental pop score is virtually bulletproof, beloved by the masses and immune to the whims of theater snobs everywhere.
As much as I detest its throwaway pop standards (“Think of Me,” “The Music of the Night”), I’m virtually gobsmacked by Paul Brown’s gilded and mirrored sets, the late Maria Bjornson’s lavish costumes, and choreographer Scott Ambler’s elegant dance vocabulary, all of which consistently come together to conjure the most splendid eye candy.
In this production, directed by Laurence Connor and “overseen” by Mackintosh and the innovative Matthew Bourne, the backstage comic lulus of the horribly behaved opera diva (Trista Moldovan), her incompetent tenor (Phumzile Sojola) and their rod-wielding ballet mistress (Anne Kanengeiser) almost eclipse the goings-on of the three main characters.
That would be Christine (Katie Travis), the Swedish soprano who so entrances the Phantom (Derrick Davis), much to the chagrin of her suitor, Raoul (Jordan Craig), her childhood friend who is now the opera’s wealthy patron.
From the cavernous netherworld of the theater to its statuary-strewn roof, Christine is pursued by the yearning Phantom, who plucks her from obscurity to make her a star. In this prototypical Gothic horror tale, based on Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel and recalling such like-minded potboilers as Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” (1897) and Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame” (1831), part of the allure is the psycho-sexual tension.
Christine is drawn to the Phantom, even as she is repulsed by him. At one point, a tied-up Raoul is forced to watch the Phantom’s overtures and Christine’s acquiescence. Talk about “The Point of No Return.” Ugh.
Travis and Davis engage in a credible roundelay as the mismatched duo, while Craig’s character sits it out in his opera box or tries to snare the Phantom in an operatic plot. All three of these performers are good, even when they are sabotaged by the over-the-top material and upstaged by the grandeur of the design.
As far as ’80s mega-musicals go, this is the granddaddy of them all.
“Phantom” is the musical-theater world’s equivalent of fast food: bloated and bombastic; laden with empty calories; yet somehow habit-forming. We scarf it down like a Big Mac, fries and a shake. We savor every second of the love-hate relationship, ignoring that little voice in our head that begs us to stop, knowing full well the incredible highs will be swallowed by inevitable lows.
After all, who doesn’t like extra cheese?
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