It’s hard to describe just what a spectacle Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera was when it opened on Broadway in 1988. By then, it had wowed audiences in London and, with its over-the-top opulence, towering sets, excessive use of fog, and the ringing voice of Michael Crawford in the title role, it was, in many ways, the Hamilton of its day. Shows sold out for months. Lines at the stage door. Thundering ovations.
It says something about a show that, 30 years later, it still manages to capture the imagination. And if you needed further proof, see the new production of Phantom that’s playing at the Hobby Center as part of the Broadway Across America series.
Based on the Gaston Leroux novel of the same name, Phantom tells the story of a menace who haunts a Paris opera house, falling wildly in love with Christine, a chorus girl who blossoms into a star under his gaze. But Christine doesn't reciprocate, so this becomes a story of spurned love, revenge, and operatic sensibilities.
On media night, it appeared to take the cast until the second act to wake up and decide to sing. While Eva Tavares’s Christine was glistening throughout, with gorgeously enunciated diction and a bell-like soprano, Quentin Oliver Lee’s Phantom didn’t fully come to life until Act Two, which was a shame, because his voice is excellent. Yet his laid-back Act One performance made “Music of the Night,” one of the show’s signature songs, adequate at best and lackluster at worst.
The Houston-trained Jordan Craig, as Raoul, the vicomte de Chagny and Christine’s love interest, did his hometown proud. His lush phrasing and excellent range were coupled with a performance that demonstrated clearly his character’s protection for his love. It would’ve been much better all around if he and Tavares had actual chemistry between them, but their duets were lovely representations of what happens when operatic trained voices tackle this show.
To be clear, Phantom has always straddled some strange place between opera and musical theater—never quite becoming the former, but existing on a different plane from the latter. It’s not even operetta, and the fantastic 1980s phrase “rock opera” doesn’t much do it justice, either. But Webber’s music certainly borrowed from opera composers in the late 1700s and early 1800s, with dizzying orchestrations and deeply layered musical themes.
Charles Hart’s lyrics can be hit or miss. They’re wonderful when they’re tongue-in-cheek, as in the opera offices when the managers Fermin and Andre read the Phantom’s demands, or in “Music of the Night” and the title song. But they wander into gooey on occasion, too, in “All I Ask of You.” Nitpicking aside, anyone who loved Phantom the first time out will love this, as will those who love a great big show. If romanticism and being a little too extra isn’t your jam, this is really not your show.
Underneath it all is an orchestra led by Jamie Johns; there are 15 pieces, augmented with 10 local musicians, who send the show soaring. Webber’s score is delicious in their hands—moody and brooding, sensual and seductive, bright and catty, hopeful and lovestruck. The orchestra brings a richness to already rich experience, permeating every corner of Paul Brown’s sets—which veer from vast to jewel box across the evening—and heightened by Paule Constable’s lighting and Nina Dunn’s video projections. Maria Bjornson’s costumes are as glorious now as they were three decades ago. Phantom, as ever, is a total sensory experience.
The show became an instant classic, and this production carries that mantle well. It’s all still here, those grand sets, the tragic storyline, the idea that love still triumphs and saves, the beautiful voices. And that music. Most of all, that music.
Thru Nov. 18. Tickets from $50. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 8000 Bagby St. 800-952-6560. More info and tickets at houston.broadway.com.