This ‘Phantom of the Opera’ Needs More Spirit

A disfigured genius falls in love with a chorus girl.  Taking her under his wing, he trains her voice so she can become the leading lady of the Opera Populaire.  When she falls in love with a childhood friend, the genius plots to keep her for himself at any cost.  This is the plot of The Phantom of the Opera, currently playing at the Orpheum Theatre.  It is written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Richard Stilgoe, composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber with lyrics by Charles Hart, and based off of a novel by Gaston LeRoux.

Phantom has long been my favorite musical.  Its moving story and haunting music never fail to sweep me into another world.  Even after 8 viewings of this show, it has not lost a bit of its magic.  Cameron Mackintosh’s reimagined production helps breathe a bit of new wonder into the 30 year old show with new sets and a few surprises.

With that being said, it also breaks my heart to admit that this was also the weakest rendition of the show I have seen to date.

Not that the show is bad.  The music, singing, and choreography were as strong as ever.  But there was a lack of connection between many of the primary performers and their words making it feel like they were simply going through the motions.  The end result being that a show where every prior production ranked a superior from me gets a mere OK on this go-around.

Part of this problem is not the fault of the actors.  While the Orpheum is a beautiful, archaic theatre well suited to a play like Phantom, its acoustics are a black hole for sound.  Many of the performers did what they could to overcome this problem, but their efforts could only go so far.  Others needed to do a better job of projecting.

Laurence Connor’s direction is passable.  The scene changes are excellently executed and some of the staging is truly magical.  However, he failed to get the best performances out of his cast and his staging of the play’s climactic final scene utterly robbed it of its tragic beauty.

The Really Useful Theatre Group took a big risk in casting Chris Mann in the title role.  Best known for being a finalist on The Voice, Mann, if the program is correct, has no prior acting credits.  Mann truly makes an effort and, for an inexperienced actor, has a truly potent sense of body language.  But his inexperience shows in his inability to capture many of the subtle nuances of the character, though he does show a brilliant flash or two throughout the night.

His singing is absolutely fantastic and he clearly knows how to interpret a song.  His beautiful tenor nailed the emotional beats of The Music of the Night and he was utterly mesmerizing as he entranced Christine during his solo in Wandering Child.

Katie Travis was one of the few performers equally as strong on the acting side as on the singing side.  She understood that a musical is more than just the singing.  It’s about being able to act through the songs, as well.  Ms Travis has a very young look which lent itself well to the role of Christine Daae.  She is utterly believable as the young girl torn between her mysterious benefactor and her young lover.  Her simple hugging of the Phantom at the play’s climax nearly broke me in two.

Ms Travis also has a glorious soprano that is so pure and clean.  She nearly brought down the house in her first solo, Think of Me, and proceeded to do so in Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again.  Ms Travis’ singing and accurate acting choices made for a well rounded performance.

Jordan Craig played Raoul, the Vicomte de Chagny, Christine’s love interest.  Craig is a very, very good singer.  His powerful, well measured baritone was a pleasure to listen to in his signature solo, All I Ask of You.  But his acting was almost non-existent.  I didn’t get the sense of any true emotional commitment to the role as Craig would appear on stage, sing, and then not have any sort of reactions to the events swirling around him, even in scenes where Raoul was in mortal peril.

David Foley and Edward Staudenmayer brought some welcome comedy relief in the roles of Firmin and Andre, the new owners of the Opera Populaire.  The roles are not huge, but each managed to create well developed characters with Foley’s business minded Firmin and Staudenmayer’s more artsy Andre.  These two men were arguably the strongest performers of the night with their deft comic timing and ability to overcome the difficulties of the Orpheum’s acoustics.  Staudenmayer does need to be careful with his humor as he went slightly over the top on a couple of occasions.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention several outstanding cameo performances in the evening’s production.  Victor Wallace stole his scenes as the uncouth Joseph Buquet who makes the fatal mistake of poking fun at the Phantom.  Morgan Cowling is a charmer as Christine’s loyal and gutsy friend, Meg Giry.  Michael Thomas Holmes was hysterical as the ill-tempered musical director, Monsieur Reyer.

Scott Ambler’s choreography was always a joy to watch especially in Masquerade.  Dale Rieling’s musical direction never failed to impress in a night of flawless instrumentation from his orchestra.  Paul Brown’s sets were pieces of artistic majesty from the stage of the Opera Populaire, to the graveyard where Christine’s father was buried, to the dank lair of the Phantom.  Maria Bjornsen’s costumes were extremely elegant with the flowing gowns for the ladies and the fine evening wear for the men.

There is a reason why The Phantom of the Opera still holds audiences in the palm of its hand even after 30 years.  The music and story are timeless with rich roles in which actors can sink their teeth.  While the night’s entertainment was pleasant enough, I have seen and will see better productions than this current run.  Ultimately, the failure to connect with their roles by many of the actors made this simply an average show.

The Phantom of the Opera plays at the Orpheum Theatre through May 1.  Performances are Tues-Thurs at 7:30pm.  Fri-Sat at 8pm and Sundays at 7pm.  There are also matinees at 2pm on Sat and 1:30pm on Sunday.  Tickets range from $150 to $50 and can be obtained at TicketOmaha or by visiting the box office at 13th and Douglas Streets M-F from 10am-5pm and Sat from Noon-5pm.  The Orpheum Theatre is located at 409 S 16th St in Omaha, NE.

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