Review: ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ at Hippodrome Theatre at The France-Merrick Performing Arts Center

The Phantom of the Opera is an entertainment phenomenon. Can we all just agree about that and move on?

Katie Travis (Christine Daaé) and Chris Mann (The Phantom).
Katie Travis (Christine Daaé) and Chris Mann (The Phantom). Photo by Matthew Murphy.

It’s still going strong after 30 years in London and 27 years on Broadway. As a reminder of its awesome staying power it is currently doing a victory lap around America that has now brought it to Baltimore’s wonderful old Hippodrome Theatre through February 7th.

Stage phantoms roam rather freely at the Hippodrome, and this one looks especially at home among the fussy gilded frills, retro chandeliers and other ornate flourishes.

Legendary theatrical producer Cameron Mackintosh has sprung for fabulous new sets for this national tour. They include collapsing scenery effects, elegant backdrops, a mist-shrouded boat ride, a nodding elephant, and a giant black oil drum that revolves into view and fills the entire proscenium opening like the inner wall of a dank castle.

For Christine’s memorable trip down to the Phantom’s watery lair, she appears up high in the rafters and must descend this wall in the dark on a winding open staircase that comes protruding out of the wall in the nick of time. It’s an amazing staging achievement, not to mention breath-taking.

At least Katie Travis is not taking any real steps in the dark when it comes to her role as Christine. She’s a lovely young singer in a role that is strictly emblematic — The Lovely Young Singer. Travis is good at looking confused and anguished, but the part doesn’t exactly require that she dirty her hands with any ambitious career gambits. Everyone in this show seems more than eager to do Christine’s fighting for her.

As a male and therefore limited, I don’t really understand the wide appeal of such a passive heroine to modern playgoers. It’s not like she spends her off-hours serving in soup kitchens or building a business. What she is good at is attracting the kindness of strangers in getting her name before the public. And, boy, does she have a blind spot when it comes to choosing music teachers.

The Phantom this time around is another excellent singer. Chris Mann was a finalist on NBC’s “The Voice,” and has gone on to make hit records, do concert tours, and even star in his own PBS special. He serves honorably behind the fabled mask and cape, especially on those big seductive Phantom solos like “The Music of the Night” and the title number. He can also whip that cape around like nobody’s business.

It’s the music by Andrew Lloyd Webber that is the real seductive force behind all this. On this visit, the entire musical seems like Webber’s insider-spoof of opera conventions and showbiz artifice. But his gorgeous romantic anthems prevail, guaranteeing that his Phantom escapes to continue his own tradition of turning nobodies into stars.

If the Phantom finds refuge in the lower sphere, his chief rival for Christine’s hand, Raoul, definitely controls the upper stories. In perhaps the musical’s best scene, Raoul meets Christine on the opera rooftop beneath a towering statue symbolizing Redemption and lays out his own case for romance.

Storm Lineberger played Raoul the night I attended, and he and Travis together weaved an especially gorgeous duet of “All I Ask of You.”

Jacquelynne Fontaine heads a letter-perfect supporting cast as the high-strung opera diva, Carlotta. Alexandra Pernice more than holds her own as Christine’s secret benefactor, Meg, and David Benoit and Edward Staudenmayer make for an amusingly vivid pair of front-office managers.

Katie Travis (Christine Daaé) and Storm Lineberger (Raoul). Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Katie Travis (Christine Daaé) and Storm Lineberger (Raoul). Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Often, however, the direction by Laurence Connor results in far better stage pictures than in dramatic punch. The fact that Christine’s benefactress is her best friend’s mother, for instance, slips by without registering at all, as does the key moment when Christine is re-united with her childhood friend Raoul. The whole show should hold its breath at such moments so that the story can gain focus.

Okay, enough of me being a wet blanket. The truth is that audiences love this show and the sold-out crowd on opening night at the Hippodrome was no exception. For Phantom followers past, present and future, this could well be the theater event of the decade, so call for tickets now before the Phantom slips away.

Running Time: About two hours and 30 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

The Phantom of the Opera plays through February 7, 2016 at the Hippodrome Theatre at The France-Merrick Performing Arts Center – 12 NorthEutaw Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call (800) 982-ARTS, or purchase them or go online.

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John Harding
Born and raised in Los Angeles, John Harding is an award-winning writer and editor. His features and reviews on film and theater have been published in the Washington Post and numerous other newspapers and magazines. Since 1982 he has covered D.C. and Maryland theater for Patuxent Publishing, and was arts editor for the Baltimore Sun Media Group. He hosted a long-running cable-TV cultural affairs program and served numerous terms as chair of the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society. Also known for his fiction as John W. Harding, his newest novel is “The Ben-Hur Murders: Inside the 1925 'Hollywood Games.'” It grew out of his lifelong love of early Hollywood lore. It is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other outlets.