Phantom of the Opera is a feast for eyes, ears

By - Aug 10th, 2009 11:52 am
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Review: Phantom of the Opera
Producer: Cameron Mackintosh
Directed by: Harold Prince

The seats for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera should come with seat belts. The 2 ½ hour extravaganza is a tumultuous ride of special effects, magnificent costumes, and well-performed music. Milwaukee’s month-long run of the national tour will please die-hard ‘Phans’ and — even after 20 years — garner new ones. Others may exit the haunted Marcus Center with a shrug.

Webber’s concept and music are realized through the creative direction of (21 time!) Tony award winner Harold Prince, a stellar cast, and masterfully presented staging. Phantom’s longevity has always relied on the integration of a simple love triangle plot, appealing music, incredible sets, special effects and perfect direction. Each buttresses the other so that deficiencies of individual parts are barely noted, and the sum elevates the whole which has resulted into a couple of decades for the Broadway hit.

The opening scene portends a coming bombast and spectacle with dim lighting and undefined tarp-covered shapes that piques curiosity and builds expectations. A small band of auction bidders are buying lots including a mechanical musical monkey (think “Rosebud”). The voluminous velvet curtain suspended over the scene begs to be released and unveil something. And it does — the proscenium literally explodes into fantastic grand opera house architectural excess. It is a veritable Pabst Theatre-on-steroids, in the midst of an exaggerated Aida-esque rehearsal. It’s all over the top, early 20th Century grandeur thanks to Maria Bjornson’s brilliant production and costume design.

The road show’s master cast provides complete musical success. Tim Martin Gleason is the Phantom; Trista Moldovan is Christine, the vulnerable young singer; Sean MacLaughlin is Raoul, the handsome rival.

Gleason’s Phantom voice dominates with impressive range and color. He is expressive and his physical allure is palpable. Moldovan sings the innocent soprano part with great charm and passion ranging through naiveté to defiant womanhood. MacLaughlin presents a sincere and powerful part.

Kim Stengel is wonderfully shrill as the self-absorbed diva, Carlotta. D.C. Anderson and Michael McCoy, with musical moments reminiscent of Gilbert & Sullivan, are delightful as they manage the dilemma of owning an opera house inhabited by a fickle poltergeist. John Whitney plays the tenor buffo Piangi. Nancy Hess is a stand out as the stern Madame Giry, artistically clad in black, with the flair of the obligatory Eastern European maitresse of the corps de ballet.

The infamous chandelier. Photo by Clive Barda for the national tour site.

The infamous chandelier. Photo by Clive Barda for the national tour site.

The special effects and costumes provide mesmerizing displays. Disappointingly, the anticipated crashing chandelier at the end of Act I instead slides into place for an anti-climatic conclusion. After intermission, the Masquerade opens the second act with sheer extravagance: dozens of opulently costumed characters fill a grand staircase and beyond. Gillian Lynne’s choreography provides a military precision to this visual feast of glitz and color.

If all that singing and visual opulence doesn’t keep the audience spellbound, there are pyrotechnical punctuations to add periodic jolts.

Phantom’s score includes (overly) familiar songs like Music of the Night, All I Ask of You, Angel of Music, Think of Me, and others. Webber uses frequent reprises as Leitmotivs; They are part of the indelible Phantom experience. If the audience didn’t enter the Marcus with these tunes in their head, they’ll certainly leave with them.

A major production downside, however, is the sound. Lyrics and dialogue may be deeply etched in the minds of true ‘Phans’, but for others understanding the words can be challenging. The lovers’ exchanges and songs, among other significant moments can leave the audience straining to comprehend. The plot, as basic as it is, could be better followed and the songs’ emotional moments, as basic as they are, could be felt if there were subtitles. The Marcus Center uses supertitles for real opera, why not for Phantom? If the romance is to be appreciated, the audience needs more than visual cues and “huh?” in their heads.

The standing ovation and full house on opening weekend implies a healthy ‘Phan’ base for the Milwaukee run, but the show may be too much of a good thing for some. Phantom ennui could dissuade older followers from yet another chandelier crash gasp – or yawn, as the case may be. But, for Milwaukeeans who have never seen classic Broadway–in all its excess–this Phantom is well worth a night at the Opera.

Phantom of the Opera continues at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts now through Aug. 30. Tickets and other information can be found by calling the box office at 414.273.7206 or visiting the Marcus webpage. Want to have lunch with the guy in the mask? Check out the special fundraiser lunch happening this Friday Aug. 14 here. You can always find out about venues and the latest news at Footlights Milwaukee.

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