Theater review: The Phantom of the Opera

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Back in 1988, when The Phantom of the Opera made its huge splash on Broadway, fantasy and horror were far less pervasive on TV and at the movies, let alone corroding the brain cells of children of all ages via videogames. So at first blush, it would seem counterintuitive for the producers of the longest-running show in Broadway history to revamp the touring version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s grand guignol musical and make it less fantastic and horrific.

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The lean toward realism begins to make sense if you scrutinize the new breed of finely chiseled ghouls and square-jawed vampires that have captured the imagination of younger generations. A certain amount of sentimental softness and empathy has crept into our latter-day creepshows.

And to be blunt: a trimmer, less ornate, less spectacular Phantom with more vividly life-like characterizations figures to be cheaper as long as setting up and breaking down the show’s impressive stage machinery are still on the expense sheet. The fabled chandelier still gets its cameo, but it’s not the same chandelier or the same trajectory. We still get the “Masque of the Red Death” flavor of the big “Masquerade” ensemble at the start of Act 2, but without the grand Broadway staircase, the Lucia di Lammermoor madness is missing. And while the underground lagoon is still an underground lagoon, is it still worth revisiting when its size and furnishings don’t make you gasp with wonder?

Newcomers to the show will find plenty to wow them. Flames shooting up from the footlights were so powerful that we felt the heat in the tenth row. Steps leading down to the Phantom’s lair underneath the Paris Opera House emerge from a massive revolving tower. But those of you who have seen Phantom before — either the Broadway original or one of the five previous tours that sojourned in Charlotte over the last 19 years — you will have plenty to cope with. Phantom phanatics are hereby placed on red alert.

While I tired of the gloomy tower, which ate up most of the space where the underground lake (a true feature of the Paris Opera) could formerly emerge, I did get a fresh thrill from that new electronic staircase. A long majestic descent beautifully complements the descending melody line of the title song when the Phantom leads Christine Daaë, his soprano dreamgirl and protégé, down to his lair by lantern light. Kudos to set designer Paul Brown for that aspect of his overhaul. With three keyboards down in the pit among the ammo wielded by Richard Carsey leading the orchestra, the Lloyd Webber-David Cullen orchestrations never lacked for voltage, particularly when simulating the ominous rumble of the pipe organs.

Dramatically, the alterations from director Laurence Connor confuse as much as they clarify. Carlotta Guidicelli and Ubaldo Piangi, the reigning diva and divo of the Paris Opera singers, are no longer played as talentless ludicrous buffoons. The new owners of the company, Firmin and Andre, are freshly endowed with sprinklings of intelligence and understanding, and the operas they produce are no longer presented as absurdly elaborate schlock.

These humanizing touches put the Phantom’s actions in a harsher light as he flouts the owners with his disruptions, kills a stagehand, puts forth an opera of his own for production, casts Christine in the lead role that Carlotta would normally play, and kills Ubaldo simply to sing opposite her as Don Juan. In tête-à-têtes with Christine and in the backstory provided by ballet mistress Madame Giry, the disfigured Phantom is a man we sympathize with. In his tyrannical vendetta against the Opera House and his sponsorship of Christine, he’s a monstrous egomaniacal perve.

With the opera staff and singers humanized, the scenes where everybody enters with a different note from the Phantom bristle with new comedy. But we are laughing more lustily at a formerly more pathetic outlaw — with another vivid reason to simply conclude he’s insane. Or a radical terrorist. Rail against the melodrama of the original Phantom if you like, but in melodrama, the lines are more clearly drawn. Then the Phantom was a rebel against mediocrity and incompetence, twisted by lifelong frustrations. Now even his critical judgment is unsound.

All the new clarity comes from the cast as Connor allows his supporting players to become three-dimensional ands transcend cartoons. Among the leads, there is also more definition, especially from Katie Travis as Christine. Instead of an innocent waif who sings sweetly, Travis convinces us quickly in Lloyd Webber’s first mock creation, “Hannibal,” that she can sing real opera — and that she isn’t merely the Phantom’s hypnotized victim. Allan Snyder replaced Chris Mann on press night as The Phantom, and if Mann is merely equal to his understudy, you won’t be disappointed.

Jacquelynne Fontaine as Carlotta is more tempestuous in her temperament and Frank Viveros as Ubaldo is more Italianate in his. Both sing admirably, but it’s clearly Fontaine who has genuine opera flowing in her veins. As Vicomte Raoul, Storm Lineberger carries himself with noble heroism without discarding nuance. There’s a protectiveness in his rivalry with the Phantom for Christine’s affections rather than a clichéd aversion, and he warms toward him convincingly in the denouement.

My favorite among the Opera staff, Anne Kanengeiser as Madame Giry, is not elementally altered from the stern ballet mistress we’ve seen in the past, just more vivid. There’s a Judith Anderson aura to her stony regal carriage, reminiscent of the mysteries lurking behind her immobile façade in Rebecca. Elsewhere, I missed the high style of mystery that I remembered from past evenings with The Phantom. When Christine’s tormentor originally disappeared forever, he vanished into a plush red-and-gold throne, leaving behind his iconic mask, perfectly lit as the lights went down.

That glowing image of the mask has graced the cover of the playbill for 27 years, occasionally paired with a rose. Now they’ve turned the page.

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