Baltimore’s fussy old Hippodrome Theatre is the ideal setting for any show dealing with fin de siècle madmen acting out obsessive love fantasies. So consider it a reward to have a thrilling new edition of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera installed here, looking and sounding at home amidst the playhouse’s gilded frills and gothic flourishes.
The Masked One is still going strong after 33 years in London and 31 years on Broadway. Making this touring production more than just the latest victory lap for Mr. Webber and company is the obvious care lavished on every aspect of this staging. Original theatrical producer Cameron Mackintosh has found another able co-conspirator in award-winning Director Laurence Connor.
The fabulous sets this time out include elegant opera curtains and stacks of private boxes; an imploding proscenium arch complete with self-destructive chandelier; a misty underground waterway; a nodding stage elephant; a vaulted cathedral with its own fog-shrouded cemetery; a snowy opera house rooftop; and one dank dungeon tower that looms above the orchestra like a toxic oil drum.
When The Phantom leads Christine down to his watery hideaway beneath the opera’s stage, the couple appear high in the rafters and then descend in the darkness on a spiral staircase that materializes plank by plank out of the side of the wall. It is a feat of both breath-taking derring-do and bravura stagecraft.
At least Emma Grimsley is always on solid footing as a songstress playing Christine, one of our musical theater’s more demanding vocal roles. She proves a crowd-pleasing powerhouse whether trilling like a songbird through “Think of Me” or bringing playgoers to the brink of tears with the mournful beauty of “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again.”
Playing The Phantom is another wonderfully talented discovery. Derrick Davis has a commanding voice and presence, even though half-obscured by a mask. He is not reluctant about wringing every ounce of pathos and maniacal menace out of the role of the disfigured suitor. Davis serves up the big seductive Phantom solos like “Music of the Night” and the title number while basking more quietly in the lyrical duets and introspective interludes that engage our sympathy.
Of course, the gorgeous romantic melodies of Andrew Lloyd Webber are the true seductive force behind the show’s phenomenal success. The less impressive conceptual elements mostly involve an “inside showbiz” spoof of opera conventions and diva histrionics. These bits of “comic relief” go on a bit past their welcome, perhaps, but luckily they are well rendered by the able supporting cast.
With The Phantom ruling the underworld and owning the shadowy realms, his chief rival for Christine’s hand, a returning childhood beau named Raoul, often appears in the open and is as open-and-shut as a case of adultery. Jordan Craig plays Raoul here, more than holding up his end vocally in the stirring duet “All I Ask of You.”
Trista Moldovan heads a letter-perfect supporting cast as the high-strung opera diva, Carlotta. SarahGrace Mariani more than holds her own as Christine’s confidante, Meg, and David Benoit and Rob Lindley make for an amusingly vivid pair of front-office managers.
A quick word of praise is not enough for Music Supervisor John Rigby, who makes a compact pit band sound like a full symphonic opera ensemble.
For over three decades now audiences have been falling in love with this show. But for those who have not, this production amounts to a near-perfect introduction. Phantom followers past, present and future should embrace the opportunity to call for tickets and not let such a thoroughly lovable Phantom slip away.
Running Time: About two hours and 30 minutes including one 15-minute intermission.