In 1925, when Lon Chaney first donned makeup and cape to fascinate and terrify audiences in the film, The Phantom of the Opera, could anyone have imagined the kind of voluptuous, gorgeous, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink musical iteration of that silent classic that now bewitches audiences worldwide 93 years later? At Shea’s Performing Arts Center until May 6th, this timeless tale of seduction, betrayal, and revenge, with ravishing music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Charles Hart, pulls out all the stops to dazzle and delight, and occasionally scare the bejesus out of attendees.
The set, costumes and special effects are as integral to this production as are the music and the very talented cast. I loved the elephant that winked at us during the Hannibal scene. But more to the point in terms of quality, is the backstage set with a hidden staircase that gradually appears and leads to the catacombs and lake that the Phantom rows across to reach his lair. As he crosses the lake with Christine in his gondola, the set opens up to reveal a large, cave-like dungeon that is at once eerie and beautiful, where the Phantom lives his solitary life. There is much more to astonish the eye in the sets designed by Paul Brown. For instance, the mirrored ceiling in the Masquerade scene at the beginning of Act Two and the opulent boxes in the opera house. The costumes are lush, lush, lush. And there is much to astonish more of the senses in the multiple special effects that come at unexpected moments.
Quentin Oliver Lee is stunning as the Phantom. His nuanced performance and beautiful baritone is a highlight of the show. I almost, almost felt sorry for him while simultaneously being creeped out by his dark, seductive presence. Mr. Lee could have carried the evening on his own, but fortunately did not have that burden. Soprano Eva Tavares held her own with him as Christine, alternately being sweet, seductive, or terrified of him. And therein lies an issue for modern audiences--not with her performance, but with her character.
Young girls should be very wary of following in the footsteps of the lovely Christine, who willingly gives herself over to the Phantom in exchange for singing lessons. She is the embodiment of the helpless young female who must “serve” her “master” to attain her desires and is seduced by the dark mystery that fear inspires. In short, she is attracted to the bad boy without any idea of what the consequences might be. When she then falls in love with the dashing Raoul, she asks that he “guide” her, which he does by using her as bait to catch and kill the Phantom. She begs Raoul, “Don’t make me do this,” to no avail. In short, the young lady has neither good judgment nor a mind of her own and is the pawn of the men in her life, be they aging monsters or adorable young vicounts. This is truly a horror story, not because of the disfigured Phantom and what he represents, but because what appears to be the “light” turns out to be only another form of darkness.
But don’t let that deter you from seeing this gorgeous, opulent, sometimes silly, sometimes grotesque, production. There are a few flaws, such as poor sound quality in the opening auction scene. And not everyone loves to hear five or six people singing different lyrics at the top of their lungs at the same time (there must be a name for that in opera). The music and lyrics are as beautiful and as ethereal as ever, vibrant and compelling. This is spectacle theater par excellence, with a terrific cast and superb production values, and I am very glad that I saw it, as was my companion.