Dec 15, 2015

A Musical Haunting

Chris Mann as The Phantom and Katie Travis as Christine Daaé. Photo: Matthew Murphy
Many of my regular readers will know I'm an opera fan. Through my formal reviews, features, and profiles, as well as my blog posts and tweets, I've not exactly made my opera passion a secret. I feel deeply blessed to have been able to so frequently combine my two loves — writing and opera — into a professional pursuit. I've always had mixed feelings toward musicals, however. Classic works like Guys and Dolls, Showboat, and Oklahoma! are forever favorites, while the more recent(ish) ones, like Les MiserablesJersey Boys, and Miss Saigon, leave me with a vaguely discomforted feeling. Productions values in all of them are consistently exceptional, it's true, but emotionally, much of their content leaves me utterly cold.

Andrew Lloyd Webber's 1986 work The Phantom of the Opera, was, until recently, very much in the latter category, with the damning addendum that it was also unnecessarily mean-spirited to actual, real opera, something I still believe to be partially true. But the new production of Phantom (currently running at Toronto's Princess of Wales Theatre as part of a North American tour) was a delightful surprise from my first viewings in the 1980s and 1990s. Based on the 1909-1910 serial novel (Le Fantôme de l'Opéra) by Gaston LeRoux, the musical follows strange and scary happenings at the Paris Opera House in the late 19th century; a ghost (the phantom of the title) haunts the theatre, living beneath the house and controlling what productions and performers will and won't be on its stage. Ingenue dancer/singer Christine Daaé catches the phantom's attention, and his fancy. Initially she is fascinated by him, and the connection he seems to have with her late musician-father, but she instead falls for childhood love Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny. When the Phantom's real background, and then underground lair, are both revealed, tragedy ensues.

The dread-filled atmosphere and rich, velvet-vintage production stylings of The Phantom of the Opera conjure up Jean Cocteau's beautiful 1946 film Beauty and the Beast and Tim Burton's stream of goth-y outsider movies (notably Edward Scissorhands). There's something about that aesthetic I enjoy immensely –the dark opulence of each feels comforting, cozy, a good place to hide. Lloyd Webber's score is one I taught a seemingly endless stream of piano students two decades ago; now, I can honestly say thumbs up to the whole package. Though it has some creative production differences from the original (including a very cool revolving tower with plank-like, pop-out steps), the new production of The Phantom of the Opera has a fascinating and very involving atmosphere that is less owing to the mechanics (which are impressive, to be sure), and more to do with casting and chemistry. Gone is the pseudo-Grand-Guignol dread that hung over the original, and firmly in place is a sense of relationship between characters, and, notably, a greater, richer sense of the titular phantom. Chris Mann, a finalist on The Voice, infuses his portrayal with a sense of damaged, lovelorn isolation; the commanding, nasty character of old has been (wisely) replaced by a deeply lonely, desperate, rather pathetic figure. Any sense of terror is inextricably linked to (and catalyzed by) a sense of deep despair.

Chris Mann as The Phantom and Katie Travis as Chris tine Daaé. Photo: Matthew Murphy
When, in the final act, we see him surveying the underground world he's known for so long, we don't see a monster, but a damaged little boy begging for love; this is an important revelation, and it goes a long way to validating the kiss Christine plants square on the mouth before she departs. Truthfully, it was a kiss I used to flinch at — it seemed forced, corny, gross, especially considering how the Phantom had been less an "angel" to her than a domineering demon, shouting commands to "sing for me!" (here, that scene is presented as a formal voice lesson, with Mann gesturing across his chest and making wide motions with his arms, imploring her to "breathe") — but that kiss is now one of acceptance and understanding, and it goes a long ways to unpacking the character's psychology. In other words, it's touching. Mann's portrayal is less boorish, more boyish, and reveals the man, not the monster. The Phantom's dangerous pranks — the slamming sandbags, the falling chandelier (which is, in this production, perched literally above the orchestra section of the audience), even the murdered stagehand who'd made fun of him — feel more like childish antics, more emo, less abomination. That may not be what traditional musical-theatre audiences want, but it's what works for 21st century musical theatre. A more identifiable (and indeed, familiar) Phantom is one that hopes to attract a younger audience, one with higher expectations in terms of characterization, and specific cultural touchstones when it comes to portrayals of romantic, tormented outsiders.

In watching this new Phantom, one couldn't help but be reminded of the moody anti-heroes from the Twilight series. The resemblances are, in many respects, striking, and it's smart of producer Cameron Mackintosh to mainline this vibe for a whole new audience. His efforts are greatly enhanced with a young, dynamic cast, and Mann, along with Katie Travis (as Christine) and Storm Lineberger (as Raoul) turn in performances that give this Phantom a youthful vigor, one filled with intense emotions and operatic reactions that, while not matching the dread of the original source material, mines the story for its hormone-laden, tainted-love storyline, not to mention Andrew Lloyd Webber's eminently hummable score. The sense of the work being mean-spirited to opera is still one I can't quite shake (does the formal "opera" presented here have to be so utterly disjointed, snobbish, and generally discordant?) but soprano Jacquelynne Fontaine's stellar performance, as the opera singer Carlotta, helps to elegantly quiet that notion. As with Mann, Fontaine's portrayal is far richer than a cartoonish, one-dimensional, diva cliche. In performing the pseudo-opera "It Muto" (clearly a satire of Mozart's works, particularly The Marriage of Figaro), Fontaine expertly balances annoyance, pathos, humor, ambition, and terror in equal measure, softening the harsh lines between "opera" and actual opera presented in the work, and succeeding, through her remarkable voice and stage presence, in bridging the two worlds with grace and a wink-nudge smile.

Jacquelynne Fontaine as Carlotta Giudicelli. Photo: Matthew Murphy
Still, one comes out of this new production of Phantom less smiling and more haunted at the impression it leaves; the portrait of a damaged, damaging loner with delusions of grandeur and the weak link in a wretched romantic triangle feels uncomfortably near. Never before have I emerged from a Lloyd Webber work hearing a melody in my head long after the curtain comes down, but the famous Phantom tune (a kind of unofficial theme) "Music of the Night" sat, ear-worm like, for several days, its Baroque-influenced lined and haunting orchestration seeping into consciousness along with Mann's entreating expression. A Phantom for all times? I'm not so sure. A Phantom for the 21st century? Definitely. See it and decide for yourself.

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