He's as pitiful as ever — scar-faced, vengeful, obsessive, loveless. But the masked man currently haunting the Hippodrome Theatre can't complain about his surroundings. The revamped touring production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "The Phantom of the Opera" looks terrific -- especially in a venue that resembles an opera house inside.
Guided by the mega-musical's original producer, Cameron Mackintosh, this venture was launched in 2013 expressly for the North American road, while the first version continues on Broadway after nearly 30 years. The show got a fresh look, with greater emphasis on inner workings of the Paris Opera House, where the frustrated masked composer schemes and dreams.
I suppose some die-hard fans of the original "Phantom" may find themselves "wishing you were somehow here again" (to borrow a lyric from Act 2), but Paul Brown's richly appointed and atmospheric set design hits the spot. It doesn't just deliver eye-catching vividness, but serves the drama at every turn.
One of the best turns involves a towering curved wall that, when it's time to head to the Phantom's lair, spins neatly into view and sprouts steps one at a time. And note all the detail in the scenery for the opera rehearsal scenes. So, OK, maybe the pivotal descent of the chandelier is a little bit of a letdown. But, let's face it, by now the only thing that would really surprise audiences is an actual crash and attendant carnage.
The enhanced visuals, complemented by the late Maria Bjornson's splendid costumes and impeccable lighting by Paule Constable, provide more than enough entertainment value. Luckily, this new production has more going for it than that.
Director Laurence Connor puts the large cast through well-oiled paces, while also drawing out a good deal of individuality from soloists and choristers alike.
In the title role, Chris Mann mostly keeps the stereotypical bad-guy mannerisms to a minimum and taps into the troubled nature of this strangely haunted character. Except when pushing his voice, Mann sings with admirable finesse, nowhere more so than when sustaining the tender last note in "The Music of the Night."
As Christine, the budding singer mentored by that mysterious and dangerous man in a mask, Katie Travis gives a persuasive performance. She fleshes out the character and, in her scenes with the Phantom, subtly reveals a mix of aversion and attraction. Her light, sometimes fluttery soprano could use tonal warmth, but her phrasing is deeply expressive.
Storm Lineberger does vibrant work as Raoul, the man who finds himself competing with the Phantom for Christine's affection. There are terrific contributions from David Benoit and, especially, Edward Staudenmayer as the bedeviled opera house managers. Jacquelynne Fontaine is a hoot as the displaced diva, Carlotta, who suffers from aria interruptus. (The night I attended, the role of the unnerved tenor Piangi was taken by understudy Edward Juvier, who had a field day with it.)
The production doesn't need such overly reverberant amplification, which makes the sturdy orchestra (led by Dale Rieling) sound coldly electronic.
By this point, there's no use in wishing that Webber's score were more consistently inspired. The Phantom's signature theme still conjures up cartoons. The opening scene of a rehearsal for an over-the-top opera called "Hannibal" sounds incongruously like under-baked Gilbert and Sullivan. And all the ersatz Puccini later on wears thin.
But there certainly are gems, including the witty "Notes," "Prima Donna" and "Masquerade," not to mention the fun send-up of 18th-century opera in the "Il Muto" scene. And this new staging manages to help all the music sound somehow more cohesive, even organic, an extra bonus in a production that serves up "The Phantom of the Opera" in style.