The idea of life without Phantom of the Opera is almost as unbelievable as a deformed miscreant in a 19th Century English opera house teaching classical vocal technique to one of the ballet’s mediocre but beautiful dancers. Yet, that is what makes it a thrilling fantasy. The Phantom of the Opera can’t go anywhere. It can’t say goodbye—that’s impossible. It is one of the most beloved and celebrated musicals of all time. Its eerily haunting music, dramatic 19th Century set design, and iconic romance story can’t possible bid us farewell. Phantom is to the theater what hot dogs are to baseball. It’s a classic. It’s a staple. It’s so much a part of musical theater that it has become a part of our mainstream sonic culture. It is blasted out of elevator speakers and played at so many people’s weddings that most of us tend to roll our eyes and classify it as cheeseball. But that’s not Phantom’s fault! We are to blame for taking something captivating and special and playing it ad nauseum. I have always defended Phantom and will continue to go to bat for Andrew Lloyd Weber’s most successful musical until the day I die. When I saw the “Farewell” posters flanking Wilshire Blvd, I got excited rather than sad, and I toted my boyfriend (a Phantom virgin) with me to Hollywood’s Pantages Theater.Ever since its 1986 debut in London’s West End, the story about a brilliant, disfigured, and mysterious musical genius’ obsession with a young, gorgeous and recently sexually awakened soprano has mesmerized and shocked audiences. The combination of the story (drawn from Gaston Leroux’s Le Fantôme de l’Opéra), Charles Hart’s sexy and sensitive lyrics, and Andrew Lloyd Weber’s gorgeous compositions, have made Phantom Broadway’s longest running musical ever. If you have never seen this show (like my opening night companion), do yourself a favor and experience it for the first time. Seeing it again through my boyfriend’s eyes brought me back to the first time that I fell head over heels for this mother of all musicals.
The show begins with an auction of opera house antiques—residual evidence of something traumatic from the past. The action begins when the auctioneer calls out Lot #666, the house’s signature chandelier. Something supernatural sparks the lamp into light, and the elegantly oppressive chandelier rises into the air, above the audience, in its original, breathtaking glory. The constraints of time are removed, and as a collective whole, the audience is transported back to when innocence was lost, hearts were broken, and the unbelievable happened.
As soon as the chandelier lights up the stage, the show moves at breakneck speed, and the action doesn’t stop until curtain call. This may be one of the quickest-moving shows I’ve ever seen. Even if you’re one of those people that think of the theater as a good napping place, you can be assured that the non-stop entertainment will keep you awake.
Christine Daae (Trista Moldovan), the heroine of the musical, makes her singing debut in the signature song “Think of Me” after the opera’s lead soprano, Carolotta (Kim Stengel), becomes emotionally distressed when the stage backdrop mysteriously collapses. Christine, we learn, has a vocal coach she’s never met that she calls “the Angel of Music”—but who she knows is indeed the storied Phantom. She sings, and everyone is so impressed with her talent that nobody misses Carlotta—except for me, the real person, in the real audience, in the real world. Christine’s voice should be crystal clear and pitch perfect in the world of Phantom, but Trista Moldovan was often airy, flat, or sharp when she needed to be perfection. The Angel of Music is her coach for pete’s sake.
The best voice in this production belongs to Christine’s amour, Raoul (Sean MacLaughlin). Every note he sang was pure beauty, and there were many times that I wished that he had been cast as the Phantom (unfortunately played by word-slurring Tim Martin Gleason). A voice like MacLaughlin’s should be heard more. Raoul was my angel of music, and the ladies I talked to in the bathroom line during intermission unanimously agreed. No wonder Christine fell in love with him. I almost did too.
As the story progresses, we start to realize that the Phantom is completely insane. We learn that Phantom is a musical prodigy and brilliant magician who was born with a disgustingly deformed face and escaped from a traveling freak show where he was abused and ridiculed most of his life. Phantom’s attempts to woo Christine by kidnapping her and holding her captive in his sewer-lair prove fruitless. Phantom’s life-size doll of Christine in a wedding gown is a major no-no in getting a girl to like you. Perhaps in Victorian England people were a bit more forward, but good grief that was creepy. As Christine’s youthful curiosity takes hold of her, she rips off the Phantom’s mask, and the audience learns that to call the Phantom emotionally unstable would be a gross understatement. As he lies on the floor, reaching out to Christine for compassion and acceptance, you realize that Phantom just yearns to look normal and be loved, and Lloyd Weber’s beautiful music demands that your heartstrings be panged.
Christine longs for a life with a man that can give her a future, a man who lives among other men, a path that is more accepted: she wants the pretty boy, not the Phantom. Trista Moldovan’s duet with Sean MacLaughlin in “All I Ask of You” is a highlight of the show—not because of the song, which of course is stunning, but because of MacLaughlin’s flawless performance. The omnipresent Phantom learns that his flame is hot for another. Of course, being a total psychopath and outcast, he is unable to deal with feelings in any rational or productive way, so he goes batshit crazy and wills the chandelier to plunge dangerously over the audience. It’s on.
The second act moves so quickly that your head whirls. Traps are laid, deceptions are had, and the conflict builds to a subterranean showdown between Christine, Raoul, Phantom, and the Victorian equivalent of a SWAT team. In the end, surrounded by police and with capture apparently inevitable, Phantom fools us again, disappearing into the night and leaving only his ivory mask.
I went to the Pantages Theater with every intention but to say farewell to this passionate, spirited, and deeply layered show. Go fall in love all over again, but don’t ever say goodbye. Phantom should not—and will not—go anywhere. As long as musicals are playing and people are attending the theater, there will be a place for Phantom. It is indeed the angel of musical theater.
-By Brittany Krasner
The Phantom of the Opera is playing at the Pantages Theater on Hollywood Blvd. through Halloween (October 31st). For tickets and more information, please visit www.pantages-theater.com.