Let me put it bluntly and at the beginning: The Phantom of the Opera at Orpheum Theatre is precisely what you hope it will be. Lush costuming, unreal set design/movement, and an impressive cast make for a bombastic and thoroughly enjoyable night of theater. There is a reason Phantom is a classic; with clever staging and well-thought-out character choices, this version displays a thoughtfulness about this show’s overly problematic power dynamics that is refreshing and affirming.
Set during the late 19th century, patronized by the masked Phantom (Derrick Davis) and an inappropriately attentive patron Raoul Vicomte de Chagny (Jordan Craig), lowly ballet dancer Christine Daaé (Emma Grimsley) rises to soprano-prominence in a Parisian opera. Before his death, Christine’s father was a well-known musician. When he realized he was dying (and presumably would be leaving Christine to fend for herself penniless in a world controlled by men) he made the problematic promise that he would send “the angel of music” to take care of her [cough]. Childishly trusting (because she is a child) that her father would keep his promise, when the Phantom appears to start giving her singing lessons, Christine believes he has her best interests at heart. It’s a plot that someone will need to explain to you several times in order for you to think it makes any sense. Honestly, the plot matters almost not at all because Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score remains phenomenal from beginning.
This show is built upon the spectacular and the trickery of stage craft, thus it makes thematic sense for Phantom to play up the relationships between front of house/the audience, backstage, the Phantom’s unearthly lair buried underneath. Paul Brown’s magnificent set steals the stage (metaphorically and actually…), contorting, opening, and seamlessly offering platforms and staircases with ease. Technically, this production is stunning. In some scenes, Paule Constable’s lighting scheme moves along with the set, creating delicious moments of racking lines of light and shadows that hint at the prison both the Phantom and Christine find themselves in. Much of the show requires a frame-within-a-frame (an opera house inside the Orpheum) and at some points golden set opera boxes are almost directly next to the balcony of the Orpheum. The characters in our story still have a job to do in their opera – much of the blocking has their backs to the Orpheum audience while they address their opera clientele. It’s one of the many ways this show reinforces the precarious nature of the actor and actresses’ existence: they must delight and entertain their audiences and their patrons if they hope to survive.
For me, while I found parts of the choreography a bit hit or miss (mostly because the set itself takes up so much space that the large cast ends up piled up down stage), chorographer Scott Ambler and director Laurence Connor made some enthralling choices that update the story. This was particularly evident in “Past the Point of No Return.” Often the staging of this song is so deeply sexual that it makes it feel like Christine has fallen “in lust” with the Phantom. Instead, this production takes pains to show Christine’s power within the scene. The Phantom wishes to be suave but instead it is she who seduces him; every time she does an expressive Tango-like stop on the table or reveals a bit more of her leg, the Phantom becomes noticeably frantic. In a show that grants Christine very little agency, re-interpreting this scene this way is incredibly impowering, and shows that she and Raoul are working on towards the same ends (the Phantom’s capture).
Perfectly engineered for your holiday viewing pleasure, this production of Phantom will astound your whole family. It will also give you an opportunity to discuss power dynamics (my family’s personal tradition) in a more nuanced way than may of its predecessors.