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Michael L. Quintos
Although, admittedly, I am not the biggest fan of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA—Andrew Lloyd Webber's Olivier and Tony Award-winning, globally-adored stage musical spectacular based on the French novel by Gaston Leroux—on the many occasions that I have experienced the show live, I have nonetheless come to still appreciate its unabashed grandeur and its eye-popping theatricality, despite my slight aversion to the show's treacly, often overly-stylized mannerisms. I've always thought that it had an air of indulgence hovering above its visually-stunning artifice—essentially a two-hour-plus exercise in style over substance (not that there's anything totally wrong with that).
But, of course, I'm likely in the minority with this opinion. After all, there is certainly no denying that the rather popular, audience catnip theater piece (still the record-holder for being the longest-running show in Broadway history) has at its core an overflowing excess of melodrama, visual beauty, and thunderous musicality—arguably the very traits that have ensconced the original musical and its subsequent stateside and international reproductions into many theatergoers' hearts for almost three decades.
But I have to say—with genuine surprise—that the brand new, Matthew Bourne / Cameron Mackintosh-supervised North American tour production now haunting the main stage of Orange County's Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa (through August 16) is quite a stunning, marvelously engrossing new update of the infamous musical that remarkably still, to this day, continues to break worldwide attendance and box office records. Going deeper than merely a cosmetic makeover, this new production—which can only be experienced in this version on this particular tour—feels much more mesmerizing and, yes, even appears much more opulent than previous versions. That's quite an impressive, refreshing feat for a 30-year-old show.
To put it simply, this gorgeous new iteration impressed the hell outta me.
Directed with a much more introspective, thoughtful approach by Laurence Connor, this new PHANTOM for the new millennium aims to please not only die-hards and Phanatics, but also those (like myself) who previously found the show, perhaps, a bit too affected and maybe even a bit cheesy. Despite a heightened awareness of supernatural elements, the show is now darker and moodier and seemingly more grounded in realism, rather than highlight its opera-inspired histrionics (well, enough to be noticeable, that is), the new production now intrigues more than it confounds.
Actually, my first initial thought while experiencing the show's recent OC press opening night performance—which featured refreshed staging, many new stunningly reimagined scenic designs, and a lush 17-member orchestra to compliment the show's excellent ensemble company— was that this brand new, revitalized tour reboot closely resembles how the musical might possibly look and feel like under the stylistic guidance of Dark Knight Trilogy director Christopher Nolan. Here it is, folks: your angsty, conflicted Phantom haunting an environment as dark, mysterious, and foreboding as Nolan's vision of Gotham City (and, also, quite likely unintentional, this new Phantom also channels a bit of the magical mannerisms of Professor Snape in the Harry Potter film adaptations).
This dark new vision is seamlessly incorporated into this production as if it always belonged there all along... and the results are extraordinary. Not only does this smart mood adjustment benefit the narrative as a whole, it also gives the show (and by extension its characters) a much more absorbing emotional heft. For me personally, the cheese factor that has always shrouded this show has all but melted away, giving it a believably brooding, shudder-inducing new aura that amps up the danger and terror of the situation at hand, making for a better overall theatrical experience. Everything from the lighting designs of Paule Constable, the sound design of Mick Potter, the movement and choreography by Scott Ambler, to the video and projections designed by Nina Dunn (for Knifedge)—all come together to form an essentially reinvigorated musical.
Paul Brown's superb work on the show's visually-arresting sets and backdrops—more than anything else—take full-advantage of this darker tone in the show. Seriously, his clever, exquisite scenic contributions to this production are worth the price of a ticket alone.
Sure, some of the more sacrosanct aspects synonymous with the original remain intact for the most part: yes, the actors still mostly overact for full melodramatic/operatic effect; yes, the myriad of unbelievably intricate costumes (designed by Maria Björnson) still stun in its sheer opulence and ornate extravagance; and, yes, that damn chandelier still comes crashing down at the end of the first act (and, yes, as expected it's a thrilling effect, particularly if you have a front orchestra seat). Oh, and the music... that oh so memorable music composed by Webber and lyricists Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe. Like it or not, much of it stays embedded in your brain for days after.
But, woah, the second you witness a man hang by his neck (a real shock when it happens), and then later, when the Phantom himself drags poor, innocent Christine down a steep spiral staircase on the side of a rusted tower, descending further into the dark bowels below Paris... you know you're experiencing a brand new, grittier show. Christine... you're in danger, gurl.
Casting is also key to sustaining this darker vision. In this refreshed PHANTOM, the title ghost (played with a palpable air of mystery by The Voice finalist Chris Mann) who threatens violent acts of terror against the mortals inside the Paris Opera House in the late 19th Century acts waaay more frightening and threatening than ever before—giving the audience all the more reason to care for the safety and welfare of chorus ingenue Christine Daaé (the striking, beautifully-voiced Katie Travis), the young lady the Phantom has specifically insisted in becoming the true star of the Opera House (well, he pretty much has the hots for her, too).
Travis' Christine seems different in this iteration as well, as if the character has become much more self-aware that she can (and should) have a say in her own destiny. Vocally, Travis' glorious soprano justifies why the Phantom is darn smitten.
Other cast standouts include the brilliant Jacquelynne Fontaine as Carlotta, the longstanding soprano star diva of the Opera House whom the Phantom wants kicked to the curb in favor of Christine. Ms. Fontaine, if I may say, can kick anyone's ass on that stage and it would be an equally compelling show I'd like to see. Storm Lineberger, meanwhile, makes for a dashing Raoul, Christine's paramour. David Benoit and Edward Staudenmayer add prestige as Opera producers Monsieurs Firmin and André, respectively. Collectively, the show's ensemble deserve bravos and cheers, particularly during the large production numbers.
Not to lessen the impact of the fine cast this show employs, but I must admit that, for me, the show's true scene-stealing stars are the technical and visual aspects of the show itself—especially in this newly rebooted, darker version. From the enigmatic opening to the cryptic ending, this show really gave me chills. Normally, I would find this a bit alarming—I'm not a fan of shows that try to distract you with bells and whistles (and sets and costumes) so that a show's flaws are better camouflaged—but I truly believe that in this case, the changes truly improved a show.
Overall, this is hands down the most vivid iteration of this show I've ever seen. With its gorgeous art direction, its darker, more meaningful approach to the story, and the combined talented efforts of designers, actors, and musicians, this new, refreshed PHANTOM OF THE OPERA deserves to be experienced in every theater that has this title emblazoned in its marquee.
** Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8ivemlq
Photos from the New National Tour of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA by Matthew Murphy. Review originally published for OnStage.
Performances of the new national tour of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA at Segerstrom Center for the Arts continue through Sunday, August 16, 2015. Tickets can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. For tickets or more information, visit SCFTA.org