BY JEFF LEVENE
The sharp blaze of light, a shot of pyrotechnics, and a blast of that iconic haunting organ that illuminate a precariously dangling chandelier. An illustrious ballroom surrounded by gargantuan mirrors and gothic era statues. An underground river shrouded in mist, fire and mystery. These iconic moments alone are enough to pull audience members right back to the box office for a second chance to relive the delight and spectacle of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s dynamite classic thriller “The Phantom of the Opera”. But with the touring adaptation currently at the Peace Center, director Cameron Mackintosh has brought so much more depth to each moment, soaking the already gorgeous and immersive set with layer upon layer of emotion.
With “Phantom”, it’s easy to be engulfed by Webber’s illustrious soundtrack and the thrilling moment to moment scares and horrors. Yet this production is as much about its opera as it is about its phantom, elevating the show’s classic ear caressing harmonies and operatic performances to flawless heights.
Case in point, the company’s undertaking of numbers like “Prima Donna” or “Masquerade” show off that there are absolutely no weak links in this cast of expertly euphonious vocalists. They mesh to create a confident collection of proud performers who balk at the Phantom’s demands fighting with gusto, working together to trick themselves into thinking there is power in numbers here. And it is this arrogance in turn that plays against them, as the cast turns on a dime to perpetuate a collective fear for not just their opera house, but their very lives, and this collective effort builds the mystique and horror as much as the show’s twists, turns, and jump scares.
Of course Quentin Oliver Lee’s Phantom pushes this element of horror and uncertainty over the edge, milking the most of each individual moment, violently reacting to Christine, only moments later approaching her with caution and humility, and yet again cooly and mercilessly attacking a stagehand moments later. In the beyond iconic “Music of the Night,” Lee’s Phantom is not simply seeking to control, but simultaneously possesses so much fear of rejection. He brings such a diabolical haunting initial presence, and reminds us this only masks a manic anxiety to the world around him, and his voice offers not only absolutely gorgeous renditions of these classics, but brings a true realness to the Phantom.
Eva Tavares’s Christine radiates this same emotional prowess, choosing again to capitalize on Christine’s own journey through her fears and how with her music she alone is the one to confront adversity. Her youthful exuberant soprano soars in “Angel of Music,” encapsulating hopeful nerves, only to be followed by impending dread. Tavares’s journey as Christine culminates in a mournful plea at her father’s grave in the beautifully acted and sung “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again.” In this number she carefully faces her fate on her own, battling sadness, shaking from fear, and finally finding the courage to go forward with a plan to free herself by her own means. And these nuanced choices make each of her reactions not only believable, but so beautiful and hopeful.
Of course each set piece, each firework, each trick of the Phantom is so delightfully exciting and spooky. Cobwebs covering a decrepit old theatre, illustrious operatic sets, costumes, and make-up, haunting underground canals; these are what have made “Phantom” so iconically fun to experience live on stage. But in the end, Mackintosh’s staging captures not just the grandeur surrounding “Phantom”, but emphasizes these moment to moment interactions to fill in much character development that’s not necessarily in the book to begin with. The Phantom blindfolding Christine to guide her. The garish reactions of the opera managers trying to “get in” with their new opera crowd. Madame Giry’s steely exterior breaking for moments of fearful determination. It’s these moments that illuminate the story, much like how the technical wonders light up the set with blasts of fire and color. And it’s this marriage of metaphorical use and technical wonders and set pieces, with the true emotional ramifications of a culture so bent on outward appearances that make this production of “The Phantom of the Opera” a startling reminder of the depths present behind The Masquerade.