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Masking the flaws

Theater Review: RBTL's "Phantom of the Opera" 

Masking the flaws

Andrew Lloyd Webber's "The Phantom of the Opera" has been a musical-theater blockbuster since its debut in 1986. It has grossed more money worldwide than any other musical, and continues to pack houses in major cities and on global tours. That's all the more remarkable when you consider that -- real talk -- the story isn't really very good.

Apologies to French author Gaston Leroux, on whose novel the show is based, but the plot is thin, the characters behave nonsensically even by musical-theater standards, and the supposed "romance" between the lead characters is actually quite disturbing. And yet "Phantom" is massively successfully, likely because of Webber's signature mix of undeniable, soaring songs and his love of spectacular set pieces. When you think of "Phantom," you think of the chandelier, the "Angel of Music," the underground boat ride, and "Music of the Night." The plot and the dialogue are tertiary at best.

I first saw "Phantom" nearly 20 years ago at the Pantages Theatre in Toronto, and even then the show felt dated, even clumsy in parts. But the new touring production currently playing at the Auditorium Theatre surprised me. Producer Cameron Mackintosh gave the show an overhaul in honor of its 25th anniversary, and what resulted is a gorgeous, well paced, and at times even nuanced (yes, nuance in "Phantom of the Opera") staging. The major failings of the basic plot are still there, but almost every other facet of the show has been improved to make for a much more satisfying experience.

That troublesome plot: Christine Daae is a member of the ensemble at the Opera Populaire -- and possibly an undiagnosed sufferer of Stockholm Syndrome. Christine has secretly been training her voice with what she believes to be an angel sent to her by her dead musician father (oh, Christine...), but which is actually a deformed genius who lives in an underground lair and has a penchant for sending passive-aggressive notes. He is also totally insane, and has been wreaking havoc in the opera house for some time with apparently no attempts to stop him -- in fact, he pulls in a cushy salary for his life-threatening shenanigans.

One of those stunt-queen antics leads the opera's prima donna, Carlotta, to walk out ahead of a big performance, and Christine takes her place. Christine is beloved by everyone, especially her recently rediscovered childhood sweetheart, Raoul, and that crazy guy from the sewers, referred to as The Phantom. A love triangle of sorts emerges, but only if you consider "love" to be a guy kidnapping a young woman, physically assaulting her, and threatening her multiple times. He then murders several people while implementing his elaborate schemes, and yet she's still maybe, kind of into him.

Seriously, that is messed up. And yet, at the performance I attended, the audience was still rooting for The Phantom, even as he strung up innocent after innocent in his physics-defying noose contraptions. You can make a case for The Phantom being a tragic character, certainly, but sympathetic? A legitimate love interest for the female lead? What kind of a statement is that making? Stalkers and mass murderers are swoon worthy, so long as they have sadness in their heart and sing well? Yikes.

But that's a problem with the show story itself, not this production. And this tour does many things right. First off, it is a great-looking show. The costume designs by Mario Bjornson are stunning. The set by Paul Brown makes clever use of a central rotating turret to create a variety of locales, from a rococo theater office to The Phantom's dank hideaway. The various special effects fully realize The Phantom's attacks -- particularly impressive for a road show.

Although the story is set in the late 19th century, this production feels contemporary. The first act moves along briskly, and director Laurence Connor has added numerous small "moments" throughout the show that capture the audience's attention, but don't distract from the overall story. That thoughtful approach is also reflected in the way he presents certain secondary characters, specifically Carlotta (Jacquelynne Fontaine), who is historically portrayed as an annoying shrew. Here we are reminded that she is actually a victim in the story, and is sometimes quite charming even as she is forced to perform in a situation that any rational person would find terrifying.

As for the leads, the standout is Julia Udine as Christine. Udine is almost ideally cast in the role. She is a gifted singer and projects a delicate innocence. Once she is pressed into the various mindboggling scenarios she seems on the verge of madness -- something this production makes seem like a very real possibility for the character.

I found Cooper Grodin less successful in the role of The Phantom. He worked much better in the second act, but in the first he failed to convey the menace that should be associated with the character -- he seemed more like a fussy proctor. He is a strong singer, but his vocal approach is less aggressive than most of the singers' associated with the role. That was especially true of his upper register, which verged on lilting at times. I suspect that Grodin's softer approach to the character was deliberate to make The Phantom appear more romantic, and less horrifying. It apparently worked, as the audience with which I saw the show gave the actor, and character, rapturous applause. Maybe arias speak louder than actions.

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