It's no big secret that I'm a huge fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera. Having seen the show over a hundred times among 6 different productions seems a little overkill for most but not for me. I could see it over and over and never get tired of it. Since moving to Atlanta, I saw the Raoul Company (2nd National Tour) several times and also the Music Box Company (3rd National Tour) several times during it's 2001, 2005 and 2010 stops. I am not a fan of the 2004 film though I can't say that I didn't like listening to the soundtrack. It was what it was.
A few months after the announcement that the new North American Tour production would stop off in Atlanta, my friend Ernie announced he wanted to visit and see the show with me. Somehow people think it's fun to see the show with me because I know pretty much every facet of it from blocking to the sets and costumes as well as the technicals in regards to the sound. After seeing the advertisements, I was pretty excited to see the new production. From what I saw from the trailer and ads, it looked similar to the original production with updates...Unfortunately, once witnessing the show live and in person, I found this was NOT the case. I will most likely come across as being harsh when I talk about this production. If you've never seen the show in previous incarnations, you may enjoy it. If you can break away from what you've seen before if you've seen the show, you may enjoy it. I however cannot help but compare the production billed as Spectacular with the original production.
Last night, Terry, Ernie and I headed down to the Fox Theatre with our $100+ tickets in our hands. We get to our seats and we find that the dress circle seats aren't exactly what we remember, they were quite tight to say the least. The view of the stage wasn't bad but not worth $100. I didn't know much about the members of this cast, unlike most Hal Prince directed productions, this featured a troupe of actors with little credits to their name and pretty much all newbies in the world of Phantom. Linda Balgord was a familiar name though, I'd seen her in Sunset Boulevard and Cats. The other cast member with a little familiarity was Ben Jacoby, son of my very first Phantom Mark Jacoby. As we listened the the Mighty Mo Organ play before the show, I couldn't help but notice there was nothing that resembled the Hal Prince productions and the Maria Bjornson designs weren't there either. The chandelier was already hanging in place and covered with a small drop cloth. There was no drop cloth covered proscenium and the auction set up was quite a bit different. Rather than a sparse review of all negative, which I could do as a whole and be unfair, I will walk you through my thoughts of this production from beginning to end in the order in which it all happened.
The auction doesn't start with the auctioneer hitting the gavel and announcing "Sold" as most of us are used to, in fact, there is no gavel. The auction starts oddly with the actors walking onto the stage. Raoul was not made up to look really old and he wasn't in a wheelchair. Right after Raoul bought the Monkey in Persian Robes Playing the Cymbals Musical Box, he walked towards it and sang to it. The music box opened up and the monkey seemed to raise up from a face down position, it looked cool but seemed to have a more modern look to it as well as it was quite small. When the auctioneer got to Lot 666, the Chandelier was lowered half way down above the audience...he threw an abridged blurb out in regards to it and when he stated "with a little illumination gentlemen..." There was very little illumination to it.
The overture sounded very full, there were additional elements to the orchestrations that gave it a more updated sound but all in all, it was the familiar tune. The chandelier's cloth was pulled which revealed a mini version of the one used at the Royal Albert Hall production. There were a few sparks and a little smoke, nothing exciting, then it was raised back up. This was definitely the moment that I realized that I would be unimpressed with most of the production. The chandelier is such a magical part of the overture to most people, in fact I've watched people stare at it, transfixed, for the entire duration of the overture. This was not the case for this one. I guess the director knew it was a bit of a let down also. Rather than a bare stage showing scenery and curtains rise, many of the performers from the first scene are on stage rehearsing their parts in the opera's production of Hannibal.
Hannibal/Think of Me
Jacquelynne Fontaine's Carlotta is perfectly capable of hitting the high notes, her voice is more suited for Christine though. Not only did she not possess a big brassy coloratura voice that an opera diva should possess, she's also the skinniest Carlotta I've even seen. Her comical bits were played down throughout this scene but a hissy fit and tantrum just before her Think of Me set the stage to show that the character expects whatever she pleases. Carlotta's Think of Me ends with sandbags falling onto the middle of the stage, 15 feet from Carlotta. When the backdrop falls during the Hal Prince production, it narrowly misses Carlotta, setting her off. This production just didn't seem to capture the near death tantrum for what it was. Jacquelynne's "What do you know?" line wasn't as comical as it was with actresses such as Julie Schmidt, Leigh Munro or Kimilee Bryant. BTW, does anyone know why Carlotta's Think of Me is slower and in a different key than Christine's? I've always wondered about that. Speaking of Christine's Think of Me, Julia Udine's voice was absolutely perfect in every way on this number. The staging was bland and the scarf isn't as prominently used as with the Broadway and other productions. This performance, the dresser that attached the Hannibal dress had a little trouble with the jeweled belt from the ballet costume which she was supposed to remove when she attached the large skirt. Somehow the belt fell and got caught on the bottom of the dress and Julia (Christine) just drug it around with her like a metal train on her dress. Meg and another dancer actually come back out mid performance and dance around Christine while she sings Think of Me...the actress playing Meg (Hannah Florence) was able to grab the belt from the dress and used it as a prop while she danced which made for a good cover up for the flub. The opera house boxes weren't as lush and impressive as the Broadway production they seemed less three dimensional on some level. When Raoul stood up to sing his Think of Me verse Ben Jacoby's voice instantly reminded me of his dad's voice, in fact it sounded just like it to me. This production's Think of Me cadenza was NOT the cadenza US audiences heard in previous productions or on the London Cast Recording, this was the cadenza used in the UK productions as well as sung by Rebecca Caine on the Original Toronto Cast album. This cadenza is known to Phans as the Claire Moore or Rebecca Caine cadenza. Julia slid up the scale with ease and popped out a high C with no effort. I LOVE this girl.
Angel of Music
Madame Giry, played by Linda Balgord, seems to have a beefed up part. I'm not sure how to explain this other than saying that she's out front more than in the shadows with the original production. Christine's dressing room seemed to be large enough for the ballet girls to practice in...I found this an odd choice of practice space but it seemed to work for the director. Julia and Hannah were great together as Christine and Meg. Hannah's voice was completely in tune, a trait that many actresses that have played Meg in the past have lacked.
Little Lotte/The Mirror
As I stated previously, Ben Jacoby's voice is just like his dad's, perfect in every way. Julia's acting is quite good but I got the feeling she got the "less is more" direction. Something about the dressing room just didn't look right to me, it had a mobile home vibe to it. When Raoul left, the door just looked flimsy and very much like one from a trailer. When the Phantom's voice (Cooper Grodin) shot through the speakers with the opening lines of the Angel of Music reprise, I knew I wasn't going to enjoy his performance. Cooper Grodin's voice is not a theatrical voice, it's more of a pop or rock voice singing theatre music, it sort of reminded me of Dee Snider's Broadway album except Dee Snider sings completely in tune. The mirror, is a HUGE square shaped mirror that looks very much out of place in the dressing room. When Christine enters the mirror, rather than looking apprehensive and the Phantom patiently leading her in, Cooper snatched her in.
The Phantom of the Opera
This scene is the most famous and epic scene of the show, the candelabras, the candles that rise from the floor, the blue lighting, smoke and the boat are the elements that people associate with this scene. This production, nixes most of this. By the way, this is the only scene that Cooper sings completely in tune...as with the Hal Prince production, the vocals in this scene are prerecorded. A large rotating "tower" revolves around with the Phantom and Christine on top, apparently the backstage catwalk. The Phantom opens a door to a set of stairs that come out of the walls of the tower just before the couple descend to the bottom, this is sort of a nice touch compared to the travulator in the original production but the candles and candelabras are no where to be seen and are not including in this production. The boat is...well...it's ugly, narrow and boxy looking. The iconic scene of Christine and the Phantom crossing the misty lake between hundreds candles in the boat is reduced to a cheap looking boat crossing swirls of fog going directly over led lighting in the floor. The Phantom's lair is revealed in this scene. Gone is the throne, the portcullis, the boat is no longer the bed double, there's no mirror...or a Mirror Bride (the Christine understudy in the Hal Prince productions)...there's an organ, real candles and a bed in the layer. Seriously looks sparse. Cooper's "Sing for Me..." lines at the end of the song were pretty much yelled with the same emotion, it reminded me of high school acting. Julia's high notes were great but her response after hitting the high notes was just odd.
The Music of the Night
The Phantom grabs and throws music from a music stand, places it in front of his organ and puts his music score written for Christine on it all the while singing "for my music, my music...Night time sharpens...." He stands in front of Christine singing (almost like someone trying to impress a date at karaoke night) with no movements, just singing staring at her..This was most of the scene. No "Floating, Falling" pose was in this and during the song, he covers Christine's eyes with a scarf...It was weird, uncomfortable and awkward to watch. I hate comparing actors but Cooper's voice was less impressive than Gerard Butler's in the 2004 film...at least for me it was.
I Remember/Stranger Than You Dreamt It
This is the defining moment where Christine's curiosity should get the best of her and then overcomes her fear after seeing the Phantom's face after ripping his mask from his face. It was originally conceived that we don't see his face until later in the show but in this production we do. Christine doesn't pull his mask off his face, she picks it up off his organ where he's putting on makeup...Seriously? The Phantom in this scene also pushes her down and pulls her hair. It's stupid and definitely NOT a trait the Phantom should exhibit. The scene is not suspenseful and it gives you no reason to feel sorry for the Phantom. The scene pretty much makes him out to be a toddler throwing a tantrum after someone looks at them.
This scene was actually quite good. I couldn't help but see a bit of Norma Desmond coming out of Linda Balgord as Madame Giry.
The manager's office opens up like a story book. It's a cool piece of scenery but the decor is decked out in a bright red. It seriously reminded me of a hooker hotel in New Jersey. The Managers played by Mark Emerson and Brad Oscar were really great, they did have their comedic moments but nothing as good as the likes of DC Anderson, George Lee Andrews or Jeff Keller. On a whole, Prima Donna has always been my least favorite scene but the voices of everyone involved in the scene were nice...though I am still not convinced Jacquelynne Fontaine's Carlotta was any stronger than Christine's voice. This scene includes elements drawn from the 2004 film, Carlotta is dressed on stage in her Il Muto costume.
Poor Fool, He Makes Me Laugh
This scene is very close to the original, however there were weird elements thrown in that I felt were inappropriate. Don Attilio hiding in the wardrobe and gyrating to Carlotta's "ha ha's" gave it a high school musical "let's do this for laughs" vibe. Carlotta's "FROG" was not well executed. Buquet's death actually happens on stage also, you see the Phantom behind him and put the punjab lasso on him before he's hung. It's a cheesy death scene.
Why Have You Brought Me Here?/Raoul, I’ve Been There/All I Ask of You
This scene has always reminded me of a dream like scene. This production does hold that element though the scenery is less impressive.
All I Ask of You (I Gave You My Music)
The Phantom is straddling a statue on top of the Opera House. I really can't say much other than I didn't care for this scene and the chandelier is lowered but not fast and it doesn't swing towards anyone on stage which leaves the effect with no climax.
Masquerade/Why So Silent
No grand staircase. No monkey girl and no stand out costumes. Christine's costume is a watered down version of the Broadway costume. The stage is flat with mirrors as the background...I had thoughts of A Chorus Line doing a spoof of Phantom. Christine's wearing a mask throughout the scene. If you've ever seen the musical Elisabeth, it looks a lot like a scene inspired from that show. Carlotta's dress is quite boring also. The Phantom's entrance is from the back of the stage, his costume is NOT the red death costume. He's got his regular half mask on and the line where he snatches Christine's necklace and sings "Your chains are still mine" has been changed to "Your voice is still mine" and he runs away without making contact with Christine.
Raoul and Giry
This scene actually works better than the original production. While Giry tells the tale of the Phantom's beginnings, shadow projections of the story appears on the wall of the set.
Notes/Twisted Every Way
We find ourselves back in the New Jersey Hooker Motel. Carlotta's line "Christine Daae, she doesn't have the voice" makes me giggle because Christine in this production is stronger than Carlotta. Just saying.
A Rehearsal for Don Juan Triumphant
This scene is well done. Piangi's struggle with the lines are a bit more obvious than prior productions.
Wishing you Were Somehow Here Again Christine Wandering Child/Bravo, Bravo
The graveyard is pretty much as sparse as the rest of the scenery, Christine's father's grave is really small and the Phantom is hidden behind a statue nearby. Julia's Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again was out of this world amazing. Wandering Child was not the arrangement from previous US productions, this was the original London trio version as heard on the Original London Cast Recording. I'd never seen that performed live so it was definitely a cool treat, Cooper's voice blended well with Julia and Ben. Rather than the staff that shoots flares at Raoul, flames that shot from the stage floor were used. I actually liked the effect until the Phantom proclaims "Now let it be war upon you both" and 5 flames shot from the stage which seemed a little weak.
Before the Premiere/Seal My Fate
Pretty much your standard Seal My Fate scene. Nothing much to improve upon.
The Point of No Return
Aside from Cooper's not so great voice, Point of No Return was done very well except for one thing. In the original production, it was made clear when Christine realized she was singing with the Phantom instead of Piangi at a point towards the end of the song, during this production I didn't see any moment where she realized it. This part also confused me because when Piangi is discovered dead, Raoul grabs the gun from the Fireman and shoots at where the Phantom was when he grabbed the gun and actually shot someone else because the Phantom had already moved about 15 steps forward.
Down Once More/Track Down This Murderer/Beyond the Lake
When Giry showed Raoul to the staircase, Raoul seemed to know where he was going after he went down the stairs. When he got to the lair, with no boat, he wasn't wet or even looking like he'd been through much. The original production fails on the same level, I just wanted to throw that out there just because. When Christine is shown in the wedding dress, it appears the Phantom was actually dressing her which was a little interesting. There's not much about this scene I didn't like UNTIL we got to the part were the Phantom lets Christine and Raoul go. Christine kisses the Phantom, then hugs him and hugs him again and then he lets them go. The way the story is supposed to go is she kisses him hugs him then kisses him again and then he lets them go. After he lets them go in this 2014 version, she returns and stands behind him while he picks up the music he wrote and she hears him say he loves her and she then leaves his ring on his organ and leaves without him knowing until just before the mob arrives. In the original production, she returns hands him the ring and they hold hands while he says he loves her...this is a VERY touching moment that can turn on the waterworks for anyone. When the mob arrives, the Phantom is in arms length of everyone. They allow him to put on his cloak and walks around the room. Meg grabs him from behind and a few seconds later she drops the cloak and finds his mask in it and that's the end. In the original he disappears through the throne but in this production it's obvious that he disappeared via the bed. I couldn't help myself and couldn't catch myself before I said "Are you fucking kidding me? He disappeared by crawling under the bed?"
To me, this production had a few good moments but MANY missed opportunities. The magical and mysterious elements are gone. I can honestly say that if THIS was the production that opened in London and New York in the 1980's, the show would have been closed by the 1990's. Ernie pretty much enjoyed the show, Terry left at intermission because he was sick in addition to being unimpressed. I stuck around because I didn't want to leave Ernie alone in the theater. On the way out the door, I noticed only a few people standing at the stage door. In previous years, I've seen LINES of people down the street waiting for the actors to get photos and autographs. All the way home, I couldn't only just say that I felt ripped off. Terry told me today that he knew soon after the show started that I was gonna hate it. We both tried to force ourselves to like it but we couldn't fool ourselves. The production looks very amateurish and the iconic role of The Phantom was poorly cast. With all that said, I can say that I would love to see Ben Jacoby and Julia Udine cast in the Broadway production. So how many times will I see this Phantom tour? Just once was enough thank you very much. I'm now itching to get to New York to see the show again the way it's meant to be so I can try and wash my memory of the not so Spectacular tour that is just a bunch of smoke and mirrors.