John Cudia as the Phantom woos Trista Moldovan with the music of the night in the U.S. touring production of The Phantom of the Opera, which plays through the holidays at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco. Photo by Joan Marcus
All I ask of `Phantom’: wishing you were somehow not here again
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera dazzled me once.
I was on an exchange program in London during my sophomore year of college. Phantom had just opened, and rumor had it that Princess Diana had been so scared by the falling chandelier that she actually screamed.
My friend Jennifer and I waited in a long line, sorry, queue and nabbed a couple prime seats, and we were blown away by the lush spectacle and by Michael Crawford (even in my naïve college-age state I could tell Sarah Brightman was a total goofball).
That was 1986. The show opened on Broadway two years later, and both London and New York are still going. Phantom is the longest-running show in Broadway history. Reportedly the show has earned Sir Andrew and his associates somewhere in the neighborhood of $5 billion and counting. (Perhaps we should be seeking an economic bailout from him.)
I’ve seen the show many times since. Whenever people came to visit San Francisco, we went while the show was in its long, five-year run at the Curran Theatre. I can understand why the Phans love the show, but I have fallen deeply out of love with it. The last time I saw the show was its 100-minute Las Vegas version, and I swore it would be the last one.
But no, I succumbed once again and went to opening night of the current tour, part of the SHN/Best of Broadway series at the Orpheum Theatre.
For a 20-year-old show, I must say, Phantom still remarkably good. There’s razzle in its dazzle. At Tuesday’s opening night, stage techs had a tough time uncovering the abnormally large proscenium arch during the bombastic overture, and the chandelier technology, while not as UFO-like and obnoxious as the Vegas version, is pretty clunky, and when the chandelier falls at the end of Act 1, when the stage hands step into position to catch it, the jig really is up.
Maria Bjornson’s gorgeous sets and costumes are still the part of the show I like best. There’s an epic scale to her designs (lit with operatic horror show glee by Andrew Bridge) that is pure pleasure to behold, and director Hal Prince’s fluid staging (with help from choreographer Gillian Lynne) is a master class in managing an unmanageable musical.
This tour, which runs through the holidays, is lucky to have two solid, reliable leads. John Cudia (at right, photo by Cylla van Tiederman) has one of the nicest Phantom voices I’ve heard – it’s warm, powerful and lacks the quirky strain of Crawford and longtime San Francisco Phantom Franc D’Ambrosio. And Trista Moldovan as Christine possesses a voice as lovely as she is. Both Cudia and Moldovan act and strike poses in the purple style required by this bosom-heaving gothic romance, but they exercise restraint in a way few of their cohorts manage to do. And they sound glorious.
That said, this is such a dumb musical.
Lloyd Webber should have a billion pounds removed from his bank account every time that god-awful drum machine kicks in during the title song.
And can someone tell me why all the inhabitants of the Paris Opera, in Paris, France, speak with bad British accents except Carlotta, the diva, who is Italian? I suppose it’s the same musical logic that requires all the Viennese people in The Sound of Music to speak with English and American accents.
Why is the lake under the opera house full of candles, and how do the “flames” stay lit in the water?
Musically, I feel like the show has five solid tunes: “Masquerade” (still the best number in the show), “All I Ask of You,” “The Music of the Night,” “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again” and “The Point of No Return.” An argument could be made for “Prima Donna” but it’s part of those wretched septet numbers where everyone’s caterwauling at the same time. I could turn on seven radios and achieve the same effect. I also don’t count the title song because it’s just cascading scales and the already mentioned drum machines, which should have been left behind in the mid-‘80s.
All the pyrotechnics and fancy set changes and over-stuffed costumes in the world can distract from the fact that you have to wait nearly 2 ½ hours to get to the heart of the show: a moment of compassion between Christine and the unmasked Phantom that generates the show’s only remotely authentic emotion.
It seems we’ll never hear the end of this Phantom. Audiences respond to this expertly run machine, and Sir Andrew, who hasn’t really had a hit since, is hard at work on the sequel, which will supposedly be set in New York’s Coney Island and may see the light of the stage sometime next year.
I’ll leave that for the Phans and Sir Andrew’s accountants. My time with the Phantom has come to an end.
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