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Broadways Phantom still king of romance, chills
(Bloomberg News, 05.09.2009 .)

© John Simon

After 8,984 performances and with no end in sight, Andrew Lloyd Webbers 1988 hit The Phantom of the Opera survives into a ripe age that makes it deservedly Broadways longest-running musical as well as an international favorite.

Based on a 1911 novel by the French thriller writer Gaston Leroux, Lloyd Webbers Phantom has spawned many a film and television version, what with its melding of romance, the supernatural and tunefulness, an irresistible trio. By now you hardly need a synopsis of this love triangle involving a masked ghost bedeviling the Paris Opera, the dashing young Vicomte Raoul de Chagny, and Christine Daae, the nascent diva torn between them.

Ghosts are always popular as proof of afterlife and source of pleasurable chills; handsome, amorous aristocrats are perfect vessels of female fantasy, just as ambivalent, pulchritudinous heroines in distress perform the same function for the male equivalent. Add the appeal of a masked protagonist and the pleasure of a hummable exit to the mix, and you can hardly miss.

Back in 1988 I was rather chary of praise for the show, possibly because there was stiffer competition. Stacked up against molehills like Rock of Ages, Next to Normal and the late, unlamented 9 to 5, however, Phantom looms like Everest.

Operatic Form

It is moreover, appropriately enough, the closest thing in musicals to an opera, which adds to its cachet. Opera lovers will even recognize artful parodies of Meyerbeer in the shows within the show. Much of Lloyd Webbers childhood was spent in the paternal music school, which may account for his natural absorption of Puccini without a sense of conscious imitation. And not only the melodies but also the orchestrations by David Cullen and the composer lend transport to the operatic realm.

For everyone, though, there are the sets and costumes by the late Maria Bjornson, at once lavish and tasteful, except where parody is intended. Then there are such stage effects -- besides that history-making falling chandelier -- as the giant staircase teeming with revelers in fancy dress for a masked ball, the heroines double (a life-size doll) crashing out of a mirror she looks into, or the Phantom vanishing into thin air.

Cunning Direction

Much of this is owing also to Hal Princes cunning direction and Gillian Lynnes apt choreography (for example, a ballet rehearsal on stage right concurrent with a dramatic scene stage left). Its the visual opulence, nevertheless, that immediately grips you and sustains its hold.

Of considerable help, too, is the dramatic lighting by Andrew Bridge, as well as the important sound design originally by Martin Levan and reimagined by Mick Potter, all of which contribute to the feeling of total immersion.

Even after more than two decades, Phantom shows no evidence of wear, thanks also to successively fine casting. The title role is compellingly sung and acted by John Cudia; Ryan Silverman is a vocally and visually convincing Raoul; Jennifer Hope Wills is a pretty ingenue blossoming before our eyes into a dramatic heroine.

From a persuasive supporting cast, I single out Patricia Phillips as an overweening prima donna and Cristin J. Hubbard as an awesome ballet mistress. But everything here makes it without nostalgia as prerequisite.

Rating: **** (Do not miss)