Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics by Charles Hart
Book by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Richard Stilgoe
Directed by Harold Prince
Presented by The Kennedy Center
Reviewed by Gary McMillan
A recent Playbill.com headline announced “Cat Destroys Lloyd Webber’s Phantom Sequel Score.” Well, Phantom‘s run has surpassed the phenomenal run of Cats – so it’s not surprising that a really pissed pussycat would strike a blow for feline-kind. But we don’t need a sequel because, fortunately, the Kennedy Center’s touring production of Phantom of the Opera is a first-class, top-drawer, A-1 production – far from a CATStastrophe. It really isn’t necessary to schlep up to New York City – you won’t get an appreciable better Phantom experience there.
Touring company sets often are less than 100% satisfactory in comparison to the technical sophistication and wizardry of the permanent sets on Broadway or London’s West End – there are just too many variables of theatre size and space configuration with which to contend on the road. Not so here. This production shines with well-engineered special effects, even if they are not always “spot on.” And the sets and effects superbly serve the story and the characters. The quality of the costumes is also remarkable, especially for the operas shown in rehearsal or performance. This stands to reason since Phantom is into its third decade in London and swept Broadway’s Tony Awards nineteen years ago. The Phantom franchise is a cash cow that the producers treat with great reverence and they wisely guard well the quality of the touring production.
After several plays, movies, and two decades as a musical – and a recent movie musical – Phantom of the Opera, as novelized by Gaston Leroux in 1910, is likely the best known variation on the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale theme. A ghost light graces the stage at the start, but it is powerless to ward off one ghost who has laid claim to the opera house. Props and other artifacts from the opera house are to be auctioned. A stunning chandelier, a murderous tool of the phantom, is prophetically marked with the sign of the devil (Lot 666). The chandelier rises from the ashes to its rightful place as the tale of the phantom unwinds.
My first Phantom was in London roughly five years ago. As a musical theatre fan, I’ve always enjoyed the songs ‘Think of Me’, ‘The Music of the Night’, and ‘All I Ask of You’. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score is lush (although I prefer the edgier Evita and Tell Me on a Sunday) and Charles Hart’s lyrics unfold story and character well. Unfortunately, the handful of melodies linger on, not only in the mind, reprise after reprise after reprise. And then there’s little matter lampooned so amusingly in The Musical of Musicals:
Sing a song that’s beautiful and new / A song by me …
It might sound just a teeny / Like something by Puccini
Surprisingly, I liked this Phantom more than the London production. The ornate grandeur of the theatre and all of the over-the-top special effects seemed to overshadow the performances. Here all of the characters, leading and featured performers alike, are unmistakably the focus.
The featured actors come close to outshining the stars. Kim Stengel as the displaced diva, sings up a storm, especially in the raucous ‘Prima Donna’, adds lightening flashes of humor, and comes close to transforming the show into Carlotta of the Opera. She also holds the record as the longest-running Carlotta worldwide with over 4,000 performances. She is a delight and a major highlight of this production. Monsieurs André (D.C. Anderson) and Firmin (Bruce Winant), new owners of the theatre, supply ample comic relief, especially in the witty number, ‘Notes’, which chronicles the company’s reaction to the Phantom’s obsessive letter writing. John Whitney (Ubaldo Piangi, the leading tenor) starts the evening as a bumbling Hannibal and adds to the humor all evening. Rebecca Judd (Madame Giry, the ballet mistress) as the Phantom’s erstwhile spokeswoman, furthers the mystery and menace of the story, rather like a sinister Mrs. Danvers.
Marni Rabb is a sweet Christine, at her finest when she is winsome and girlish. Her voice is every bit equal to the most demanding songs, yet she shines best with the less flashy numbers such as ‘Think of Me’ and ‘All I Ask of You’. Her suitors, John Cudia (Phantom) and Greg Mills (Raoul), match Rabb’s talent for both singing and acting. Cudia particularly excels in showing us the tragically vulnerable side of the Phantom.
The opera scenes as well as a few others sometimes rise to the level of cacophony with the performers singing over one another, which can make following the lyrics frustrating if not impossible. The Act II opener, ‘Masquerade,’ is exciting and well-performed, but marred by the distracting use of manikins and cut-out figures on the staircase, presumably there to create the illusion of a larger chorus.
Hal Prince’s directing keeps the show moving at a pace, although there are awkward bits of choreography required now and then to move the actors or entire company into proper place to avoid props and curtains.
(Running time: 2:30). The Phantom of the Opera plays now thru Aug 12 in The Kennedy Center’s Opera House. Evening performances: Tues – Sun at 7:30 pm. Matinees: Sat & Sun at 1:30 pm Tickets: $37 – $95. To order, visit the Kennedy Center website.