"The Phantom of the Opera" returned to the Hippodrome Theatre Friday night with its famed chandelier looming impressively over the audience, and its boogie-man, descending-scale tune for the title character booming ominously into the house.
For the uninitiated, this tour — said to be the final one for the original production — should provide all the sensory appeal that helped turn this Andrew Lloyd Webber show into the ultimate musical cash cow (more than $5 billion grossed worldwide, over 80 million people served since 1986 ). For seasoned "phans," there should be more than enough fresh pleasure in this well-oiled, effectively cast production to make another encounter worthwhile.
And for those who have always found the scariest thing about "Phantom" to be the fact that it is treated in some corners as an artistic masterpiece, rather than merely a brilliant confection of popular entertainment, well, there are reaffirmation possibilities aplenty, too.
The show is pretty much foolproof by now (it was critic-proof long before it ever opened). The dramatic structure has always been overly weighted in favor of the first half, which moves cleverly from a wonderfully understated prologue to high-voltage special effects, but something diverting is always around the next bit of stage business.
It's still hard to beat Maria Bjornson's lavishly atmospheric set for visual dazzle, and that set is an ideal fit for the Hippodrome, which already has as interior with the air of a gilded opera house about it. And the original Harold Prince direction retains its impressive cinematic sweep as characters swarm almost magically through the seamlessly shifting scenery.
As for Webber's score, the two hit songs, "The Music of the Night" and "All I Ask of You," haven't lost their earworm potency, but the way the composer uses basically the same closing melodic phrase for each still seems more a case of laziness than incisive symbolism. And most of Webber's attempts at operatic parody sound as lame as ever, especially in the case of "Hannibal," the epic that is being rehearsed at the Paris Opera at the start of Act 1 — a tepid Gilbert and Sullivan imitation never did make much sense.
But no use in being haunted by such things in "Phantom" at this late date; better to go with the popular flow. And that's easy to do here, given the polish of the tour package and the engaging quality of the performers.
Tim Martin Gleason is a most sympathetic Phantom. The actor recently assumed the lead, after long experience playing Raoul, the love interest of Christine, the budding prima donna being groomed by the troubled "ghost" of the opera house. Gleason's Phantom boasts, above all, exceptional vocal skills; his singing, especially when slipping effortlessly into a well-centered falsetto, is invariably affecting.
Trista Moldovan, as Christine, reveals a combination of assured acting and a bright, silvery voice capable of elegant expressive nuance; her sweet phrasing of "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again" elevates that workaday number considerably. As Raoul, Sean MacLaughlin has the tall-dark-handsome thing going for him. His generally persuasive portrayal is matched by reliable singing.
D.C. Anderson and Bruce Winant make an energetic, amusing duo as the unsuspecting opera house owners. Kim Stengel and Luke Grooms get good musical and theatrical mileage out of the roles of the haughty opera stars. Nancy Hess, as the formidable ballet mistress Madame Giry, is another sturdy asset in the supporting cast. Aside from questionable intonation in the vocal numbers, Paloma Garcia-Lee is effective as Christine's friend, Meg.
The ensemble of choristers and dancers does mostly supple work, and conductor Jonathan Gorst gets a smooth, energetic response from the synthesizer-boosted orchestra.
"The Phantom of the Opera" runs through April 25 at the Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St. Tickets are $25 to $82 (plus service fees). Call 410-547-7328 or go to ticketmaster.com.