Magnificent New Production of “Phantom” Thrills at The Lied

by Sam Pynes

Since 1986, The Phantom of the Opera has become the most lucrative entertainment franchise of all time, the longest-running Broadway show, and the second longest-running West End musical. A show with the undeniable prestige of Phantom provides a fitting celebration for The Lied Center’s 30th Anniversary Season. The venue invested $400,000 in refurbishments to accommodate the production, all of which will enhance the space for future shows as well. The ceiling was reinforced to support the centerpiece chandelier. Rigs were added throughout the house to support production-specific decorations and effects, in this case the surround sound speakers that this production employs. Most importantly, the flyloft was rebuilt to allow sets to sit further downstage, bringing the action closer to the audience. This improves the sightlines for viewers on the edges of the house, but Phantom is still a deeply-staged show, so I recommend sitting as close to the center as you can. But truly, get a seat, any seat, for this magnificent production while it is in Lincoln.

Though many patrons will likely have seen productions and tours in other cities, the show has a multigenerational appeal that goes beyond nostalgia. I am myself a second-generation viewer: the music has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, but the show itself is comparatively new to me. This is the first time I have seen the show in person, and it did not disappoint.

This new production of Phantom, as re-imagined by Laurence Connor in a new and inventive staging at the request of producer Cameron Macintosh, was unveiled in Plymouth, England, in March of 2012. The US tour premiered in November of 2013 and has been running ever since, making a stop at Omaha’s venerable Orpheum Theater just last season.

The impetus for this new staging was to update the show and make it easier and more efficient to tour. Connor worked as an associate director on the original Phantom in London in 2002 and oversaw the fantastic 25th anniversary celebration at Royal Albert Hall. He has also restaged several other classic and long running shows, such as the current tour of Les Misérables, which will be stopping at The Orpheum this season.

Derrick Davis (Eric, The Phantom) and Emma Grimsley (Christine Daaé) were absolutely amazing.

It will be difficult to discuss the changes in this production without getting into particulars of the plot, so if you are in the fortunate position of encountering this show for the first time, I highly encourage you to stop now and go see this production. It is really and truly glorious.

Connor centered his new production around the central romance, trying to focus on the human story of Christine’s search for meaning after her beloved father’s death and The Phantom’s search for connection by returning to the original novel for inspiration. The staging downplays the more magical parts to create a more realistic sense of the backstage of the opera, shifting the style away from an abstract and dreamlike theatrical fable, and more towards a literal theatrical realism. An easy example of this is the scene in which the phantom appears in the mirror of Christine’s dressing room. In the original production, Christine walks through the mirror, to meet him, as if by magic. In this iteration the mirror opens on a hinge.

The major set change is the inclusion of an impressively tall circular wall which serves a variety of purposes throughout the play, and creates a clear distinction between the glamour of the opera stage and the harsh brickwork of the backstage. It revolves around the circumference of the set, allowing for seamless scene transitions, and opens to reveal the manager’s office. Mechanical stairs protrude to carry Eric and Christine down into his lair by the subterranean lake.

Some of Maria Björnson’s original designs remain, the biggest absence being the original production’s grand staircase. “Masquerade” uses mirrors to give the illusion of more people instead of dummies, and presumably as a nod to the mirror trap in the novel. Christine’s party dress is much brighter, perhaps to make her more easy to pick out, but also for thematic reasons. The Phantom’s red cape and death’s head mask is replaced by a red military uniform. Christine no longer wears a wedding dress in “Music of the Night.”

The show employs a number of layers and metaphors, and this production makes a conscious change in emphasis which I think a few moments in the play makes clear. The most important of these is casting Eric somewhat younger and emphasizing the love story between him and Christine by downplaying the romance with Raoul and The Phantom’s role as a surrogate father-figure to Christine. There are some key moments that support this notion, especially a minute line-change in the graveyard scene when Raoul yells “this thing is just a man,” instead of the original “that thing is not your father.” Along these lines, the romance of “All I Ask of You” felt a bit downplayed, and less sweet than one might imagine. This is not a production-specific criticism, but Raoul really gets the short end of the stick in this show. It is hard to get a read on his character’s motivations and whether he is another potentially abusive infatuation, a sweet and loyal lover, a brave protector, or a jealous boyfriend: he is never really given a clear resolution. Some suggest that the thematic changes were made in order to make the show more sympathetic to the plot of the 2009 sequel “Love Never Dies,” but for the sake of sanity and good taste, we will pretend it doesn’t exist. It invalidates the arcs of this show and adds nothing.

The two most important turning points in the show, and two of my favorite songs, are “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again” and “The Point of No Return.” I would argue that the show is primarily about growing up by gaining the ability to show love and compassion: it is about the maturation of emotional love, or love-as-feeling into self-giving love, or love-as-action. Eric and Christine are both selfish and adolescent in different ways. Christine has made an idol of her grief over her father’s death, and that excuse has allowed her to deceive herself regarding the suspect and mesmerizing figure who claims to be the Angel of Music that her father has sent to her. Eric, on the other hand, justifies his outrageous and evil actions with the excuse that he has no hope of human connection because of his hideous deformity. In “Wishing You Were Here” Christine makes peace with her father’s death and finds closure in telling him goodbye. She immediately sees Eric for what he is in a way she hadn’t before. In “Point of No Return,” the storytelling of the song is beautifully conveyed as you see the moment when Christine realizes that she is singing with the Phantom, and struggles not to mean the words she is singing as he draws her in to join him in his lustful despair. She succeeds in breaking free of his influence by removing his mask and showing the ugliness underneath. Later in the final lair scene she is no longer repulsed by his face because she can see the real and greater ugliness of his actions and pities him. She kisses and hugs him. In a beautiful bit of acting and direction, Eric is clearly shocked and repulsed by the power of Christine’s touch as his whole edifice of excuses crumbles away. He has no recourse but to take responsibility for his actions.

It is an awesome bit of theatre.

I think these characters’ arcs from adolescent infatuation to adult love are conveyed specifically, consciously or unconsciously, in the music styles depicted in the show. The manager’s songs are very ‘square’ and old fashioned, almost to the point of being silly and kitschy, while the phantom’s music sounds new, cool, and modern with guitars and high emotionality. It is worth remembering that this show was written as the era of rock music was waning. In this reading, the raw emotionalism of rock is adolescent, emotional, and exciting, but ultimately immature and unsustainable. This might also explain Christine’s colorful dress in “Masquerade,” which is bright and youthful compared with the opera company. Both, but most especially the Phantom, learn that love is more than a feeling of infatuation, and that love finds a purer expression in wanting the best for another, and that beauty is not something to be taken, but given and received, and that emotional anger, however justified, does not itself justify selfish action.

Some minute criticisms:

The way the set allowed the audience to be both on stage and backstage during Buquet’s death was very cool, but I didn’t like that you actually see Eric kill Buquet. You might also notice Eric disguised as a stagehand earlier, which I think removes some of his threat and mystery.

The other major qualm is with the staging at the very end. The original production had a throne in the lair into which Eric sinks, wrapping himself in a cloak. Meg finds his mask on the arm of the chair and the cloak empty to end the play. In this version it is somewhat unclear what happens. Meg apparently helps him escape by wrapping him in a cloak. Did she know he would disappear?

The transition from the prologue, taking the audience into the past of the opera house punctuated by the first phrases of the score, is one of the most theatrical moments I have ever seen, and I loved it, but the scrim obscured the actors a little more than necessary, and it might be unclear that Raoul is remembering, especially to a new viewer.

In “Wishing You Were Somehow Here” Christine does not stop moving, but wanders all over the stage. I think it would have been preferable for her to come to rest in this scene. I felt similarly, but less strongly, about “Think of Me.”

This show may have been reimagined to make it easier to tour, but it was done with care and imagination to make it a smooth, modern, and effective show that retains the spirit of the original. I highly, highly recommend it.

If you go: The Lied Center for Performing Arts is presenting The Phantom of the Opera October 23 to November 3. Tickets are available online and at the Lied Center Box Office.

Sam Pynes is an actor, writer, and story enthusiast. Mostly harmless.

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