Review: Phantom of the Opera (2019 Production)

Cameron Mackintosh's touring production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera provides a gloriously uplifting Gothic tale of Love's Triumph over Darkness.

The great-granddaddy of Gothic Horror-Romance is back on the stage, goading audiences to look behind the angelic mask and see the demonic face beneath, then urging them to look further -  to see the tortured soul beneath the deformed visage - and to grant the monster a measure of compassion. When that compassion arrives on stage, in the form of a kiss, it falls like grace from heaven, redeeming the monster in the eyes of the story's ingenue and in the hearts of the audience - a fairy tale ending so perfect that it renders the show bulletproof from any criticism.

The Phantom of the Opera 2019 Review: What's Wrong & Why It Doesn't Matter
Phantom of the Opera 2019 review
Hiding behind a state on the opera rooftop, the Phantom overhears Christine and Raoul plotting against him.

Lord knows there is plenty to criticize in Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical version of The Phantom of the Opera, though at this point in history, when the show's status as a perennial crowd pleaser has been established and re-established beyond question, it may be pointless to itemize the flaws. Gaston Leroux's 1910 source novel is an enjoyable potboiler about a mysterious phantom haunting the Paris Opera House, but it is overloaded with unnecessary comic relief and extraneous characters; the young male and female protagonists barely qualify as one-dimensional, and really the only interesting relationship is between the "Opera Ghost" and the equally mysterious Persian (never named), who knows the Phantom's secret. Fortunately, the book has a sort of fairy tale simplicity that renders questionable plot developments palatable to readers invested the story's strong points, which consist mostly of the fascinating depiction of the titular Phantom of the Opera and the wonderfully atmospheric setting - both in and under the opera house.

Andrew Lloyd Webber's 1986 stage adaptation wisely streamlines Leroux's tale, ditching the digressions and focusing on the the triangle between the hideous Phantom, the handsome Raoul, and the beautiful Christine Daaé, a young understudy whom the Phantom picks to sing in his own opera, "Don Juan Triumphant." The Persian is gone, replaced by a ballet teacher whose only function (besides delivering a handful of portentous asides) is to relate the Phantom's backstory. Unfortunately, it is impossible to tell Leroux's story as originally written because, over a hundred years later, we all know that the Phantom of the Opera is really a man in mask, not a literal ghost or (as Christine would have it) an "Angel of Music" sent by her late father to guide her. Robbed of this surprise revelation, Webber shuffles story elements around and moves realization of the Phantom's true nature much sooner in the narrative. Coupled with some overlong song-and-dance numbers representing rehearsals at the opera house, this makes the first act feel simultaneously rushed and slow.

But here's the important point: ultimately, none of this matters, because once the audience emotionally invests in the musical's tortured love story, everything else falls by the wayside. The Phantom is a fascinating figure, both repulsive and alluring. A sort of sinister Cyrano de Bergerac, he relies on his voice to melt the heart of a woman whom he will not allow to see his face. He presents himself as an unfortunate victim - despised because of his appearance - and expects love in exchange for helping Christine, but he expresses that love in a threatening, obsessive way that makes him appear, by today's standards, to be a stalker badly in need of being served a restraining order. Is there a human soul lurking behind his mask, or has his inner self become as twisted as his outer appearance, fueled by years of rage against the world that has rejected him?

This is a larger-than-life sort of story that works best when freed from the bounds of realism. Full-blown melodrama is the way to go, and nothing enhances that melodrama more than a rousing musical score, sweeping the audience along and drowning out any credibility concerns.

The Phantom of the Opera 2019 Review: The Score

More than any other musical adaptation of a known property, The Phantom of the Opera makes the most sense because the setting cries out for music. Webber strives to stay true to the story's milieu, essentially writing an opera, with the music divided into dramatic underscoring, arias, and recitatives. The recitative sections are adequate to the task of delivering the exposition in place of dialogue (there are only a few spoken lines; otherwise, the score runs continuously).

Phantom of the Opera 2019 Touring Production Review
The Phantom performs the Svengali treatment on Christine, turning her into a great singer.

However, Webber's strength lies in the arias - the show-stopping musical numbers that are the true raison d'etre of musical theatre. The most obviously powerful tune is the title song, whose monumental organ riff descends chromatically over a pounding rock-and-roll rhythm (reminding us that Webber got his start with the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar); the  rendition at the Pantages is energetic, the baseline throbbing hypnotically beneath blasts of electronic percussion worthy of a rock concert. Equally alluring - at least in this production - is "Music of the Night," in which the Phantom pleads his case to Christine. The duet has never been a personal favorite, but the singers on stage brought it to life in a way that changed my mind forever.

The score does perhaps rely too much on repetition. Yes, this is an opera, so we expect to hear recurring leitmotifs when certain themes are revisited, but too often we get virtually identical melodies instead of variations showing some development. It's up to the performers to supply the variety missing from the melodies; fortunately, the conductor, the orchestra, and the singers at the Pantages manage to wring some emotional shadings out of the recycled notes. And truth be told, though Webber receives much grief from Broadway critics for not providing the musical sophistication and harmonic complexity of Stephen Soundheim, he does know how to write a tune that is easy to enjoy in multiple iterations.

The melodious and haunting highlights of Webber's score seep into our souls, bringing to life both the Phantom's romantic yearnings for Christine and her ambivalent reactions to this dangerous and yet simultaneously pathetic would-be lover. The fairy tale logic of the plot, in which character motivations quickly bounce back and forth beyond the realm of any realistic psychology, no longer requires audience indulgence, because the the music, at its best, sells the story with a conviction that overwhelms all but the most stubborn critical reservations. The music and the emotions it evokes are grandiose and, dare one say, gloriously operatic.

The Phantom of the Opera 2019 Review: Staging & Performances

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The version of The Phantom of the Opera currently on stage at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood is the new touring production "overseen" by Matthew Bourne and Cameron Mackintosh. It's in the nature of touring productions that they are somewhat scaled down in order to facilitate moving from one location to the next every month, but little if anything about the show seems attenuated. The staging is lavish; the orchestral accompaniment is luscious; the sets, lighting, and costumes are glorious.

The most impressive technical achievement is the smooth scenic transitions, with massive sets rotating on and off stage, taking the story from the parapets of the opera house to the catacombs beneath and everywhere in between in virtually the blink of an eye. Most impressive is the turret-shaped stair case to the Phantom’s lair, which initially looks impossible to descend because there are no steps, just a curved stone wall – until one by one the stairs slide out from the wall as if by the Phantom’s command. The rooftop location may not be entirely clear - falling snow indicates it's outside, but there's little to suggest that the characters are atop the building - nevertheless, it is an impressive setting, where Raoul and Christine make plans to escape, only to be overheard by the Phantom, whose presence is revealed by the movement of the set that shows him hiding behind an over-sized statue.

Though the score and lyrics emphasize the story's romantic aspects, the sinister Gothic atmosphere is very much in evidence, enhanced by lighting and sound effects. Often off-stage, the Phantom's presence is revealed by silhouettes on the walls, while his voice seems to emanate from various nooks and crannies in the theatre, bouncing around with the dexterity of a musical sound effect at a Pink Floyd concert.*

Phantom of the Opera Touring Production 2019
"Masquerade," one of the visual highlights of Phantom of the Opera's 2019 stage production.

The performances have much to live up to - many great actors and singers have made their mark during the many recordings and revivals of The Phantom of the Opera - but the cast meets and exceeds expectations, erasing any audience regrets about not seeing the original stars. On the night we attended, understudy Emma Grimsley took the role of Christine (who, when you think about it, should always be played by an understudy), and she lived up to her role, hitting all the notes as if she were the headlining star. (If the show's regular Christine, Eva Tavares, is even better, she must be quite phenomenal.) Jordan Craig came across less well, but that's in the nature of his role: Raoul is a fairly typical Gothic hero - brave, young, handsome, and relatively colorless.

Ultimately, The Phantom of the Opera depends on its titular performer, and Derrick Davis was stunning throughout. The Opera Ghost is an ambiguous figure - both terrifying and pathetic - and Davis manages not only to convey both of these externally as they impact the other characters but also internally, providing a sense of the war raging within the man himself. He's offstage much of the time, and when he is seen he is masked, but here perhaps more than anywhere else, Webber's music makes itself heard, allowing the actor to express everything he needs through his singing.

The Phantom's initial abduction of Christine is a musical highlight, but Christine's glimpse of the man behind the mask does not register as it should, because his deformed appearance is not apparent to the audience. Presumably the ghastly visage is being saved for a fuller revelation at the climax, but it hinders the emotional impact of the scene. Fortunately, the ending delivers everything it should. What could have been contrived is instead deeply moving, providing a satisfying sense of closure while leaving the Phantom's ultimate fate open-ended.

The Phantom of the Opera 2019 Review: Conclusion
Phantom of the Opera at the Hollywood Pantages.

Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) gets a lot of well-deserved grief for trying to romanticize a classic horror tale into a love story, but the true originator of the form is Webber's Phantom of the Opera. The difference is that morphing the mysterious Phantom into a romantic figure makes more sense, because the classic beauty-and-the-beast theme was always woven into the fabric of Leroux's novel, in which a disfigured madman, twisted into a homicidal maniac by a lifetime of loneliness and estrangement, is hopelessly yearning for love. This intriguing nature of this mysterious figure is what keeps the story of The Phantom of the Opera alive from one generation to the next, despite some weak plot elements. Not every flaw in the novel was erased in Webber's musical adaptation, and not every flaw in Webber's musical adaptation has been erased in the current production at the Hollywood Pantages. However, the staging and performances outshine any weakness in the material.

It's fascinating that this archaic story hinges on a woman rescuing rather than being rescued - and doubly so because Christine saves both Raoul and the Phantom, in a sense saving one's life and the other's soul. The Phantom of the Opera is ultimately the story of a demonic under-dweller yearning upwards toward a light he cannot reach on his own. In the end, it is not Don Juan the demonic seducer who is triumphant but Love in its purist form - a spiritually uplifting fairy tale ending, which the performance at the Pantages delivers with complete conviction.

Footnote:

  • As Pink Floyd bassist Roger Waters has noted, the chromatic descending riff of The Phantom of the Opera's title song is virtually identical to the guitar riff of Pink Floyd's "Echoes" from the 1971 album Meddle. Also similar is Rick Wakeman's organ-based instrumental "Judas Iscariot," from the 1976 Criminal Record. 

More in this series: 

  1. Phantom haunting the Pantages
Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera 2019 Rating
4

Bottom Line

Not every flaw in Gaston Leroux’s novel was erased in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical adaptation, and not every flaw in Webber’s musical adaptation has been erased in the 2019 touring production. However, the staging and performances outshine any weakness in the material, providing a gloriously uplifting Gothic tale of the triumph of Love over Darkness.

Credits: Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Lyrics by Charles Hart; additional lyrics by Richard Stilgoe. Book by Richard Stilgoe & Andrew Lloyd Webber. Based on the novel by Gaston Leroux. Production overseen by Matthew Bourne and Cameron Mackintosh. Directed by Laurence Connor. Scenic design by Paul Brown. Costume design by Maria Björnson. Lighting  design  by  Paule  Constable. Choreography by Scott Ambler.  Starring: Derrick Davis, Eva Tavares, Jordan Craig.

The Phantom of the Opera was reviewed during its run at the Hollywood Pantages (June-July 2019).

Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.