The Phantom of the Opera meets The Red Shoes in Synetic Theater’s sexy and Goth take on Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel about ghosts, haute society, obsession and the symbiotic relationship between protégé and pupil.
Audiences are probably familiar with the haunted happenings at the Paris Opera House through the long-enduring Andrew Lloyd Webber musical of the same name. Lovers of ballet and rococo surrealism may well remember the 1948 British drama, The Red Shoes by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, which, like Synetic’s production, features professional dancers and impressionistic, highly emotive ballets.
The Tsikurishvilis combine elements of both in a dashing adaptation (by Nate Weinberger) that goes behind the tutu to tell a dusky, romantic tale about love, genius, ghostly apparitions that float in the air and the mind, and the battle between light and dark.
The Tsikurishvilis turn the Phantom’s (Irina Tsikurishvili) passion from an opera singer to a ballerina. Christine (Maryam Najafzada) is a promising dancer in the corps de ballet, her talent not gone unnoticed by the jealous and preening prima ballerina, Carlotta (Rachael Small) and the ballet impresario Montcharmin (Delbis Cardona).
Somebody else notices too. The Phantom, a former ballerina—her younger self (Rachael Small) dances like a belle époque dream—has banished herself to the underground of the opera house after a fire disfigured her face and form, and twisting her mind as well.
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The Phantom, a glittery, web-like mask concealing her scars, reveals herself to Christine and convinces her to become her new pupil. There is lovely yearning back and forth between the student and the master in an unusual pas-de-deux where the Phantom pokes and prods Christine from promising to perfection—Christine willing and pliant, the Phantom at once imperious and covetous of the girl’s youth and talent.
This mirroring of movement and expression shows up later when the Phantom toasts her student’s success with champagne and a shower of flower petals—their twinned dance at one celebratory, seductive and filled with the ethereal magic of what bodies in motion can do.
However, the Phantom gets carried away with making Christine a star, plaguing Carlotta and forcing Christine to choose between a genius career and marriage and stability with her clumsily charming suitor, Raoul (Jacob Thompson).
This plot development echoes the main theme of The Red Shoes, which is art versus life, in the impresario Boris Lermontov demanding that dancer Victoria Page give up romance with a young composer to dedicate herself to her craft. The idea of a woman not being able to have it all—love and career—also shows up in Phantom, as the Phantom is madly convinced that Christine belongs to her alone, not to Raoul.
Gothic romance to the hilt, and Synetic’s company has the right sensibility—dark and glittering—to pull off such deeply purple dramatics that threaten to veer into melodrama but blessedly never do. Instead, you bask in skillful excess—skeins of velvet drapes and wedding cake gilded tiers in Scenic Designer Daniel Pinha’s backdrops; the night-black and blood-red costumes and corsets by costume designer Erik Teague (there are even black toe shoes that would befit the villainess from Swan Lake); deliciously vertiginous projections from Patrick Lord that and a score by Konstantine Lortkipanidze frantic with strings and at times so lush you want to spread it with a butter knife.
Phantom of the Opera closes February 29, 2020. DCTS details and tickets
Minimalism, schminimalism. Synetic knows how to pile it on with flair and flood all of the senses—and in this regard the production mirrors The Red Shoes, with its hyper-saturated color, music and sense of surreal horror.
Synetic’s Phantom would be a total triumph save for the unevenness of the dancing. Full disclosure: I saw Phantom less than a week after I saw Giselle by the Bolshoi Ballet at the movies. Not saying that Synetic’s company needs to be of Bolshoi caliber, but the Synetic dancers had expressive arms and extension but less-than-precise footwork, or tight footwork and wobblier arms—rarely disciplined, articulated legs and arms at the same time. Arabesques and leg lifts were pleasingly athletic, but somehow you’d think there would be more lyricism and less gymnastics for a ballet dancer of this period.
Tsikurishvili as the Phantom combines lyrical arm and back movements with deep emotion and precision, as befits a prima ballerina. Guidi, as the Young Phantom, and Najafzada as Christine, have lovely and charming presences, and they will their dances to life by silently counting out the steps, but the spells they cast are intermittent. However, the woman-to-woman lifts, holds and leaps are surprisingly agile and light, especially those between Tsikurishvili and Najafzada.
You may know the story of Phantom by heart, but Synetic turns familiarity on its toes and you find yourself completely sucked in, especially in the second act, as the love story between the Phantom and Christine moves from passionate to perverse. There isn’t a place for the Phantom’s love in her subterranean hideaway—or above it in real life.
The Phantom of the Opera. Adapter: Nate Weinberger. Director: Paata Tsikurishvili. Choreographer: Irina Tsikurishvili. Featuring Irina Tsikurishvili, Maryam Najafzada, Lottie Guidi, Rachael Small, Jacob Thompson, Delbis Cardona, Janine Baumgardner, Thomas Beheler, Julia Ruth Holland, Joshua Cole Lucas, Scean Aaron, Eliza Smith. Associate Director: Katherine DuBois Maguire. Fight Choreographer: Vato Tsikurishvili. Scenic Designer: Daniel Pinha. Costume Designer: Erik Teague. Lighting Designer: Brian S. Allard. Composer: Konstantine Lortkipanidze. Projections Designer: Patrick Lord. Produced by Synetic Theater . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.