The phantom has had a face-lift.
Big news indeed for a show fundamentally unaltered for 26 years and still playing to global audiences galore. Has the masked figure undergone cosmetic renovation? No! But the touring production of the still-going Broadway megahit, now on stage at Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre has a new look. Overall, this cautious but often clever reworking by director Laurence Connor (he also helmed the new version of “Les Miserables” now on Broadway), provides a subtly refreshing new set design and choreography. There’s also a younger-than-usual title character (Chris Mann who won fame as a finalist on Christina Aguilera’s “The Voice” television reality show). In addition, a shift toward realism replaces buffoonery in the three operas nestled in the narrative.
Devout fans may yell “sacrilege.” I don’t go that far, but personal taste still favours the staging of the original production. The beauty-and-the-beast mystery and romance of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical of a disfigured genius obsessed with a beautiful young soprano remains the show’s magnetic strongpoint. The composer’s biggest hit and the longest-running show in Broadway history premiered in London in 1986 and on Broadway in 1988, and both productions still are going strong.
Play goers will find this “Phantom” the same, yet different. The story, based on Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel, has inspired so many stage and screen adaptations through the years. Webber’s original, sweepingly romantic and melodious score remains: the memorable, seductive “Music of the Night,” the love lilt “All I Ask of You,” along with the spellbinding anthems “Angel of Music,” “Think of Me,” “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again,” “Prima Donna” and “Masquerade.”
When the London production hit its 25th anniversary, producer Cameron Mackintosh opted for changes. The original, after all, already had been seen by just about every possible touring market through the years, and Mackintosh reasoned that most shows, a quarter century or so after their premieres, get to come back in revivals offering a fresh take on the material. As he’d already done with “Les Misérables,” another of his megahits, Mackintosh hired a new team for a tour revival utilizing advances in lighting, sound, pyrotechnics and design since the original production took shape in the mid-’80s.
The story is darker, grittier, and more realistic, with less stress on extravagant stylization. The supporting characters who people the opera house, especially the diva whom heroine Christine replaces, are taken more seriously, not as over-the-top farceurs. The three pastiche operas within the show are
handled somewhat differently, too – treated not so much as parodies of particular styles but as serious works an opera company would actually produce.
The late Maria Bjornson’s richly accented period clothes along with those gargantuan opera costumes remain intact, while the original sets have been revamped and modularized in imaginative ways by designer Paul Brown. The center piece is a large cylinder that turns on its axis to reveal the various spaces of the opera house. It struck me as being rather clunky. At one point, stairs emerge from the wall allowing the Phantom and Christine to descend as he whisks her to his lair. The candle-lit boat ride differs from the original. There are no candelabras rising from the subterranean mists as the Phantom punts his gondola, laden with the captive Christine, to his foggy grotto. The many enormous candelabras have been replaced by smaller replicas, and the journey through the stage mist is noticeably shortened. These dollar store changes somewhat lessen the overall foreboding gloom of the Phantom’s dungeon digs.
The “Masquerade” sequence that begins the second act is played out in a maze with a wall of mirrors, replacing the enormous staircase in the initial production. The lavish spectacle has been downsized altering the impact of the original. The effect is more of a bang than an explosion kicking off the final half. That famous chandelier still takes a swan dive at the close of Act 1. Yet that, too, is handled in a slightly altered fashion. Instead of swinging and crashing onto the stage, the lavish fixture shoots flames and drops straight down, stopping just over the heads of the patrons in the first few rows. The opera house rooftop vista, where true love blooms in “All I Ask of You,” is mostly a rickety papier-mâché statue behind which the vengeful Phantom emerges to curse the couple. The whole enterprise is now shadowed in shadows.
This revised version isn’t seismic though its style-over-substance design will probably claim an equal share of lovers and haters, though the innovative staging has to be admired. There’s a fresh sheen to this darker, grittier “Phantom.” What has been lost is a sense of the spectacular, though it retains the fantasy romantic emotions of the saga. There’s a triangle of tortured passion as Christine has fallen in love with Raoul, a childhood boyfriend, which sends the agitated masked man into a jealous tailspin. At final curtain, Christine’s compassion for the disfigured genius motivates him to act in kind. Liberated, the lovers escape the Phantom’s underground hideaway while he magically disappears as the gendarmes arrive to capture him. A decade later he reappears in Webber’s sequel “Love Never Dies,” which never attained the notoriety of its parent.
This production is built to travel, sleek and beautiful and cleverly thought out using some awesome stagecraft. Open up your mind let your fantasies unwind to the Phantom’s mystery, which still amazes, and that’s a great part of its universal appeal.
“The Phantom of the Opera” is playing at Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre through January 23rd.
Written by: Alex Reynolds