Hand it to Andrew Lloyd Webber for taking a silent film classic like The Phantom of the Opera (1925) and transforming it into a live musical tour de force.
The newest bus-and-truck production just finished an LA run on July 21st at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. And it just may be the crown jewel of the composer’s long and varied series of Broadway hits. Phantom does bear the distinction of longest-running musical on the Great White Way, since it’s been in production since 1988.
When I was coming of age, Michael Crawford was all the rage as the original Phantom. He won a Tony for his performance and Dame Streisand even recorded a duet of “The Music of the Night” with her former Hello, Dolly costar for her Back to Broadway album in ‘93. The show really is one that depends heavily on the strength of its Phantom to embody the pathos of its tragic antihero. I saw the show in Los Angeles back in the early ‘90s, but it didn’t leave much of an impression, aside from the memorable set piece of the Opera House chandelier which becomes something of a plot point at the end of Act One.
But after all these years, I figured it’s time to give this old warhorse another look with new eyes. The narrative about a Phantom who haunts a revered opera house and grooms the ingénue to replace the resident prima donna is a captivating premise. Particularly so, since he expects her love in return. The score (which has spawned some controversy of its own), produced such memorable gems as “The Point of No Return” and “All I Ask of You.” Suffice it to say that some misgivings remain. And just as it was once hard to convince Rolling Stones fans that the Beatles were a better band, Sondheim always trumps Webber for me.
Certainly Webber knows how to bring the bombast, but it can all seem a bit overblown at times. The first act bogs down in exposition and the characters spend a lot of time singing over each other. But for the most part, this production delivers a worthy Phantom of epic proportions. This design team gets a lot right, particularly the pageantry of this larger-than-life gothic masterwork, the gorgeous sets and costumes, the mood lighting and the spectacular effects throughout the show which sell the mystique and transform the show into its own Disneyland attraction, right down to the pyrotechnics, the lightly falling snow or the gondola ride down to the Phantom’s lair.
Most importantly, Derrick Davis makes a phenomenal Phantom. What felt somehow lacking: as previously, mentioned, the first act seemed to slog a bit, but I’ll blame that on the writing more than the performance. Regrettably, the other aspect which seemed to be lacking was a genuine spark between the star-crossed lovers, Christine and Raoul, which felt somewhat forced and perfunctory.
The Phantom Inside Your Mind
While the cast is uniformly strong, Derrick Davis is the centerpiece of this outing, as evidenced when his true nature begins to emerge from the shadows in the second act. Davis brings the primal anguish of a man who is scarred, both literally and figuratively, by his past. Davis is bracingly effective at traversing the chasm between a menacing presence intent on controlling the opera without regard for who he harms in the process and a wounded soul crying out for love and compassion. Is he channeling the OG silent screen Phantom, Lon Chaney, Sr.? The inspiration is apparent. Davis does have sound on his side. His skills were on full display during his curtain call when the audience ovation reached a roar as he strode center stage.
Eva Tavares (who shares the role with two other actresses) also makes a strong showing as the Phantom’s protégé and unrequited love interest Christine Daaé. She certainly looks the part and is vocally up to the challenge. Her voice does strain and have moments of sounding pinched. Likewise, Jordan Craig turns in a solid performance as Christine’s love interest, Raoul. He’s got the leading man looks, but there was something a little stiff and mechanical about his work that has audiences rooting for the Phantom. One could argue that’s the way the part was written, Craig he didn’t do much to bring a sense of warmth or believability to the role that would’ve made this atypical love triangle more compelling.
Still, the confrontation in Act Two when all three parties finally meet on stage is sublime. Sparks fly, literally and figuratively, thanks to some spectacular pyrotechnics courtesy of the Phantom. Other highlights await, including the masquerade number that captures all the elegance and pageantry of the score and book. There’s also some much-welcome levity when the Phantom schemes to undermine the prima donna Carlotta and makes her croak like a frog during a performance. But it is the climactic scene where Christine is forced to choose between her love for Raoul and her compassion for the Phantom. How the Phantom is transformed in that moment still takes your breath away all these years later — and leaves us with something profoundly transformative and human.
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Last modified: July 31, 2019