EDMONTON - In some quarters, it is not fashionable to applaud Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera. Some critics seem to feel the pop opera is an insult aimed specifically at them.
My favourite is A.O. Scott's review of the film in the New York Times. Quoth he, "(The Phantom ...) represents a victory of pseudo-populist grandiosity over taste - an act of cultural butchery akin to turning an aviary of graceful swans and brilliant peacocks into an order of Chicken McNuggets."
Sucker for the Phantom
I should, therefore, like to establish that I am a sucker for the thing. I have seen it more than 10 times and, indeed, when I was in my television phase, travelled for a couple of days with the show - watching it unfold in wonder - over and over again.
What makes it work so well? Well, let's start with Harold Prince's breathtaking production. Prince creates a feeling of theatre without bounds - his simple, elegant black box, behind the highly ornamented proscenium, is capable of becoming anything.
Lloyd Webber's soaring melodies are a perfect mounting for Gaston Leroux's gothic horror-love story.
When producer Cameron Mackintosh launched The Phantom on the road, he decreed the travelling version should be every bit as good as the shows on Broadway and the West End of London. And he spent $10 million (US) to make sure it happened.
I can safely say, every cent is obvious on the stage at the Jubilee Auditorium - which has been somewhat rebuilt for the month-long run.
How has the show aged?
Well, the emphasis has changed a bit. The famous falling chandelier doesn't pack the wallop it once did. Some of the spectacular stage bits don't have the impact of the first time around. But the eerie menace of the Phantom's watery underground lair, the uneasy sexual undertones and the unsettling feeling that there are grand and malevolent forces at work here, remain.
And so, at 20 years of age, and now the most successful show ever produced on Broadway, the man in the mask is as entertaining as ever.
Concept, production and performance still explosively combine to admit us into the world of the guileless young Christine and the mysterious Phantom whose scarred face, hidden behind the mask, rules his destiny.
Other Phantoms have impressed - Colm Wilkenson's soaring lyric tenor and Jeff Hyslop, a striking, feline creature prowling a shadowy backstage - but, to my mind, this production's John Cudia is the best.
He is certainly the best actor - his expressive 19th-century gestures are grand and graceful without crossing the line into moustache-twirling melodrama.
At times his body twitches as if strings are being pulled from somewhere inside his twisted brain and hideously malformed face. This is a tortured man of great contradictions - courtly yet base, sensuous but repellent, a sympathetic monster capable of stirring great pathos. His voice is a remarkably supple instrument, strong across his entire range.
Jennifer Hope Wills is also a fine performer - a beautiful woman with a honey-dipped soprano. When we first see her, her Christine is an innocent, a child unprepared for life and hugely influenced by the ghostly "Angel of Music" who guides her.
But as the production unfolds, Wills skilfully manages the transition to confident young woman able to face down the phantom in his own lair.
Adam Monley does what he can as the underwritten Raoul, but no actor I've seen has been able to do much with this thankless role. All you need is a matinee idol's profile and a good voice, and Monley possesses both.
Theatre owners provide humour
A bit of much needed humour is provided by D.C. Anderson and Bruce Winat as the two hapless (and clueless) theatre owners, and Kim Stengel delivers a broad comic performance, as well as displaying a remarkable range, as the flamboyant Carlotta the "prima donna."
The entrenched critics of Lloyd Webber will not be swayed, but those of us who enjoy a celebration of the special magic of theatre will be delighted to join the Phantom, "down once more to the dungeon of my black despair ..."
Judging from this sumptuous, well-performed production, disfigured though he is, the Phantom is aging gracefully.
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