“I’m not going to take this on the road unless it’s as good as what people have read about, with the same lighting and the same sound. I think that’s my biggest bequest—that I imposed my standards. It’s sensible, actually, because the real thing will last longer than something shoddy.” – Cameron Mackintosh, in an interview with the Financial Times
There’s a reason Cameron Mackintosh is the world’s most celebrated and most influential producer of theatrical shows. Decades after a musical has been written and shown to be successful, Mackintosh “constantly restages the same musicals in new productions, with fresh directors and casts,” even though, as he told the Financial Times last year, “Musicals are expensive to keep running.”
And so Mackintosh, the master magician among producers, has created yet another version of the most popular of musicals in his stable, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera. Based on a widely-read French novel, Le Fantôme de l’Opéra by Gaston Leroux, first published as a serialization in 1909 and 1910 and later developed into various stage and film adaptations, the story eventually morphed into Lloyd Webber’s musical in 1986 with lyrics by Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe.
The melodramatic plot centers around a mysterious, disfigured musical genius living in the subterranean labyrinth beneath Paris’ Opera Populaire. He’s in love with a beautiful young soprano, Christine Daaé, who becomes his obsession. The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, a French Romantic/Gothic novel by Victor Hugo, seems to have served as the godfather to The Phantom of the Opera; Hugo’s novel had as much of an appeal in 1831 as Phantom in 2017. No wonder Phantom has become the longest running show in Broadway history.
Sure enough, the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, a magnificent opera house with fine acoustics—as expected—was sold out on opening night. An orchestra of 52 players under the musical supervision by John Rigby created a feast for the ears, and the cast displays a wonderful ensemble spirit while letting each star shine, with Derrick Davis as the Phantom and Eva Tavares as the object of his desires.
Perhaps one of the biggest surprises was the sound design by Mick Potter, who managed to spook the audience with his unexpected, meticulous sounds from unexpected places. He created a perfect soundscape, no matter where one sat—helped by a loudspeaker system so sophisticated that one could hear the Phantom talking and whispering and pleading from various places all over the Academy of Music as if he were wooing all of us, rather than only the young innocent Christine. The placement of the Phantom’s voice created just the right atmosphere for an omnipresent, powerful, yet vulnerable creature—a human being who had already gone into another world.
The musical was directed in yet another fine-tuned version by Laurence Connor, the latest reincarnation of a stunning work that awed us like a royal gala during the Victorian era. No expenses were spared in using some of the best talent from around the world, including choreographer Scott Ambler and set designer Paul Brown, plus the lighting design by Tony Award-winner Paule Constable.
Perhaps the most spectacular work was the original, Tony Award-winning costume design by the late Maria Björnson. There was also the famous “dressed” chandelier, worth $2,000,000 and considered to be one of her greatest triumphs. Sure enough, the audience looked at this gigantic chandelier as if it were the famous apple that comes down on New Year’s Eve in New York, except that many of us were sitting right under it, making me wonder whether it was really safe to sit in one of the best seats in the house. Of course, everything worked: the audience shrieked and then sat back and recovered, before the next surprise hit the audience.
The stage design made me gasp at times as it looked dangerous, and it made me smile when the same ominous tower with its canal below opened up and revealed the backstage world of the French theater with its cast of eccentric singers and beautiful ballerinas, all troubled by the lack of a decent salary.
It seemed that the audience did all the right things: being awed, being frightened, being entertained.
And yet, there were moments that the producer in England could not have anticipated. When one of the actors on opening night carried a severed head onto the stage, instead of being shocked, the audience, perhaps remembering the often-shown photo of Kathy Griffin and the fake, severed head of Donald Trump, laughed out loud. Shortly thereafter, the symbol of the Republican Party, a huge elephant, could be seen stage right. A number of people in the audience laughed again.
Watching the old plot of a young and vulnerable singer who is torn between two men—within the context of the many discussions about sexual exploitation of some powerful men in 2017, both in the US and now around the globe—made me wonder about the future of spectacular shows like the Phantom.
Will we continue to see such shows the way previous generations loved black and white minstrel shows, or will theater audiences move away from spectacular shows that take the best from the circus world and the best from the film world, filling large theaters with a whole new generation of theatergoers? Or did we visit an amazing super-show that no longer can be improved and will, eventually, run its course?
Time and the zeitgeist will tell.
Running Time: Two hours and 38 minutes, with one intermission.
The Phantom of the Opera plays through Sunday, November 12, 2017 and is presented as part of the Broadway Philadelphia series by The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts at the Academy of Music – 204 South Broad Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 893-1999, or purchase them online.