THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA Remains Unmatched Among Modern Day Musicals
Reviewed by: Michael J. Roberts
Few shows in the lexicon of musical theater has had more of an impact on the genre then Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera, whose U.S. National Tour is beautifully housed in the new Dr. Phillips Center of the Performing Arts in Orlando. Now the longest running Broadway show in history (with Orlando native Norm Lewis earning rave reviews for his impeccable performance as the first African-American Broadway Phantom), this current tour departs vastly from director Harold Prince’s iconic and romantic vision. Instead, Laurence Connor’s version is much more grounded in reality and youth as the casting of the major players are about a decade younger than in the Prince version. The late Maria Bjornson’s glorious draped sets have now been updated to a giant rotating drum designed by Paul Brown (the same technology used in The Lion King) to create a much more menacing environment for our masked friend to haunt, while her original costumes remain unchanged.
When I first reviewed this new production in Chicago almost a year ago, I had issues with some of the changes because of the overall impact it had on the character’s relationships. This production was, after all, developed in the UK as a bridge for the failed sequel Love Never Dies. But much of my reservations were alleviated by a stunning cast turning in incredible performances including Cooper Grodin in the title role, Julia Udell as Christine (now on Broadway) and the amazing Linda Balgord as Madame Giry, who each brought added depth and an emotional grounding to their roles. Those past critical reservations are much more front and centered here, as this new cast has some work to do in finding the truth of who their characters are.
It also doesn’t help that this new cast is even younger then when the tour first launched As the Phantom, Chris Mann (from tv’s The Voice) comes across as a angst teenager rather than accomplished musician who knows how to manipulate his prey. Though he can certainly sing the role brilliantly, the Phantom needs to have a maturity behind him to convey the emotional impact of a long suffering soul forced into solitude his entire life and whose only salvation is his music. The shift in age also invades on his infatuation of Christine, impeccably sung and acted by Katie Travis, who invokes some Sierra Boggess’ pronunciations with the lyrics. Again, without a maturer Phantom, the manipulation of Christine thinking the Angel of Music is her father gets lost, and so does much of the conflict of the entire story. Storm Lineberger’s Raul is one angry dude from the outset and seems to pose a bigger threat to Christine than the Phantom (as he does in the sequel Love Never Dies).
Though the newly designed set is more actualized and allows us in to see more backstory, the grandeur and majesty of the original piece are missed. The Phantom’s once luscious lair is now a bed, organ and bizarre palm tree; the roof of the Paris Opera is now a one dimensional grounded angel sculpture; the grand staircase for “Masquerade” is now a room with back mirrors reminiscent of A Chorus Line; and the graveyard scene has two small scaled tombstones. Even the chandelier, which literally shattered over the audience in Chicago, now barely moves.
That said, even with all these flaws (some which will be worked out when this new cast gets more comfortable in their roles), The Phantom of the Opera remains unmatched among modern day musicals and regardless of the quibbles with this new incarnation, the story remains one that anyone can relate to. The production is also perfectly at home in the Dr. Phillips Center, where the sound was the best I’ve ever heard in the near fifty times I have seen this show. It was also my companion’s first time seeing Phantom and any of my critiques can easily be tossed away with the emotional fervor to which this show innately creates. To that end, the three minute standing ovation was greatly deserved. That is the power of this near perfectly crafted musical where the last fifteen minutes remains one the most brilliantly written final scenes of any theater piece.
The Phantom of the Opera runs through December 14, 2014 at the Dr. Phillips Center. Visit drphillips.org for tickets and more information.