Darker. Grittier. More realistic. Those are the intentions of the producers and designers for the latest staging of “The Phantom of the Opera” at the Kennedy Center, which makes use of theatrical technology that has emerged since the musical first took London by storm in 1986.
Bold and majestic, the tragic love story based on Gaston Leroux’s novel mesmerizes audiences with the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber and staging by Cameron Mackintosh. Mr. Mackintosh and Matthew Bourne have overseen the new touring production, with costumes, colors and theatrics serving a visual feast, and the music and sound effects enveloping the audience in the fantastic world of the haunted Paris Opera House around the turn of the last century.
The revised design of Paul Brown and staging by Laurence Connor makes use of a turntable to quickly move from one scene to another. A large, industrial-looking cylinder opens up the backdrops. Yet while pursuing the magic of modern special effects, the producers have let some of the mystique of the original “Phantom” slip through the trap doors.
The play is breathtaking as the Phantom spirits Christine away to his dark world on a boat ride across the foggy lake underneath the
opera house, highlighted with the signature numbers “Angel of Music,” “The Phantom of the Opera” and “The Music of the Night.” This enrapturing sequence is meant to be savored at length as the highlight of the show, but the new production seems to rush it. We also miss dramatic emotional moments that follow: Christine’s swooning upon encountering the bride in the mirror, and her betrayal and exposure of the Phantom by ripping off his precious mask.
Second only to the mask as an iconic prop in the musical is the magnificent chandelier. Stage manager Jovon Shuck told reporters at
the Kennedy Center for a preview of some of the show’s elements that the chandelier “has a few tricks up its sleeve.” The modern
pyrotechnics and other special effects are indeed surprising and impressive, but they don’t embody the disaster intended to frighten
the audience before it catches its collective breath with an intermission. Said Mr. Shuck: “We want the chandelier to appear dangerous without being dangerous.”
The new gadgetry, however, prohibits the sweeping crash that once made orchestra conductors duck and sent cast members scrambling from the stage.
Opening Act II is “Masquerade,” a number with elaborate costumes and gorgeous choreography by Scott Ambler. What’s missing from the new production is the grand staircase designed to replicate the opulent marble structure from the Palais Garnier. Its absence onstage pares back the splendor of “Masquerade,” and the Phantom’s entrance loses much of its drama. Rather than the imposing figure creeping eerily down the staircase, we are presented instead with a ranting masked composer who seems to be no match for the crowd of revelers who presumably want to capture him.
On the night of this viewing, Julia Udine understudy Kaitlyn Davis played the role of ingenue Christine Daae. During Act I she seemed to need some of the guarding and guidance that her character’s suitors promised her. At times, when a confused Christine didn’t know where to look, Miss Davis seemed to not know where to cast her gaze either. One result was a slightly off-cue dramatic introduction of the Phantom.
By Act II, however, Miss Davis had found the strength of her character and nailed the poignant “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again.”
Chris Mann is brilliantly cast as the Phantom. His rich voice emotes seamlessly as his character’s mood transforms from seductive to
haunting to angry and mournful. Mr. Mann’s history as a finalist on TV’s “The Voice” is no surprise, but his acting skills deserve equal
Though the Phantom is rivaled by Raoul, the Vicomte de Chagne, vocalist Storm Lineberger doesn’t hold a candelabra to the top star.
His lyrics trail off at times, and his performance lacks the passion required of his role. Perhaps his stage chemistry is better with Miss
Udine. On this night, however, he appears to be only going through the motions of the script.
The remarkable Jacquelynne Fontaine, who has to disguise her full vocal talents as second-rate opera diva Carlotta Guicielli, seems to enjoy her role so much that she almost makes her temperamental character likable. In an interview with Broadway World San Francisco, she says Carlotta is the most fun character in the show to play besides the Phantom.
Strong performances also come from fellow opera veteran Phumzile Sojola (Ubaldo Piangi) and other cast members. David Benoit and Price Waldman are adept at providing comic relief as the befuddled new owners of the opera.
Other sights to behold are the award-winning, handmade, one-of-a-kind costumes designed by the late Maria Bjornson. The actors change at seemingly impossible speed — sometimes onstage. It is a bit odd, however, to see some of the male characters holding panels to protect the modesty of women as they dress.
Of course, kudos must go to the makeup team, whose work looks marvelous throughout the show. The artists also have the task of
turning the dashing Mr. Mann into a repulsive monster.
Still one of the grandest musicals of all time, “The Phantom of the Opera” is never to be missed when it comes to town. The award-winning North American touring production runs through Aug. 20 at the Kennedy Center Opera House. For tickets and more information, visit Kennedy-Center.org.