It’s Not Over Yet, the Music of the Night: The Phantom of the Opera at the Detroit Opera House
The Phantom of the Opera is the most popular and successful musical of all time. It has played in 125 cities in 25 countries to over 100 million people and has grossed over $5 billion in its lifetime. It has firmly situated itself as an emblem of Western popular culture, with songs and melodies more familiar to us than our own childhood nursery rhymes.
One of its longest and most popular runs was the 10-year engagement at Toronto’s Canon (then Pantages) Theatre, where the stage was constructed specifically to host The Phantom. This is where I saw it the first time, a decade ago in its final year at the Pantages, and I certainly never thought any other production would be as elaborate, as extensive as this, where all the construction was done specifically with The Phantom in mind.
I was curious to see how the Detroit Opera House would handle such an extravagant production (and more so what adjustments would be made to accommodate the stage), and was absolutely blown away.
The Phantom of the Opera at the Detroit Opera House is an accomplished production, a visual and aural feast, a well-oiled machine in which every cog performs its function to perfection, from the performers to the production design team.
The story of The Phantom is a haunting love story—a tale of passion, longing, desperation, and fear, and above all else, a tale of love. Overwhelming, obsessive, destructive love.
Based on the novel by Gaston Leroux and adapted for the stage by the crown prince and patron saint of musical theatre, Andrew Lloyd Webber, The Phantom of the Opera is set inside a Parisian opera house and tells the story of the tragically disfigured “Phantom” (a majestic Tim Martin Gleason) and his love for Swedish ingénue Christine Daaé (an ethereal Trista Moldovan). The Phantom, who both inspires and terrifies the opera house’s performers and management, aids Christine in developing her voice and places her in a position above the resident opera diva (played with slapstick aplomb by Kim Stengel), until he is driven mad(-der) by his jealousy over the budding romance between Raoul, the Vicomte de Chagny (a solid performance from Sean MacLaughlin), and his beloved Christine.
As it is set in an opulent Parisian opera house and features a number of microperformances within the musical itself (bits of operas and ballets performed on this Opera House’s “stage,” all with their own music, choreography, and stage sets), The Phantom is an ambitious undertaking for any stage. As I’ve already noted, I wasn’t sure what to expect of this traveling production. But when the Phantom and Christine descend into the catacombs in Scene 4 of Act One, I was simply awestruck. The mechanized ramps high over the stage with the use of body doubles to create the illusion of descent, followed by the boat carrying the Phantom and Christine “gliding” over the lake, where hundreds of candles magically rise up from the stage, covered by fog, only to vanish entirely seconds later—the effect is pure enchantment.
This is why audiences all over world have fallen in love with this musical for decades: it is the tragic tale of unrequited love (that perhaps we can all relate to) and the sympathy we feel for the Phantom; it is the renewed hope we feel in the burgeoning love between Raoul and Christine; it is in the magic orchestrated by the Phantom, a masterful musician and magician whose power is reflected in the enormous set pieces that appear and vanish like so much air, and in the way each scene takes on so much life of its own. Audience members are transported to these different places: the rooftop of the Opera House bathed in the light of the moon; the labyrinthine catacombs where the Phantom makes his home; the seats of the Opera House’s own audience, viewing the Phantom’s destruction onstage as the Parisian audience would.
This production of The Phantom is impossibly grand in scale, a monumental achievement which woos audiences with its stunning visuals and its astounding performances. As Christine, Trista Moldovan’s voice soars like a nightingale. Youthful, demure, feminine, and powerful, her performance of “Angel of Music” and her bewitchment by the Phantom cuts like a knife through the heart. Tim Martin Gleason as the Phantom is strong and somber, a majestic ghost whose voice has a presence and stature that his corporeal form may lack (according to the story, anyway). Kim Stengel as the obnoxious opera diva Carlotta Giudicelli is wonderfully hilarious, showing off her stellar pipes while also poking fun at herself. Other supporting members of the cast were graceful and competent, playing up to the story’s sense of sorrow, hope, devastation, and humor in turn.
There are a number of immense sets utilized throughout the production, each more grand than the one before. The stage is rigged with a complicated system of lavish curtains, moving set pieces (such as the extravagant chandelier and the sculpture over the stage where the Phantom hides from Christine and Raoul), ramps, pulleys, a grand staircase, massive mirrors, and more. The hundreds of costumes and thousands of meters of fabrics used for the curtains are sumptuous, intricately detailed and made of the finest silks and wools. Every element of this production is breath-taking, full of visual splendor.
But even without the curtain dressing (so to speak), it is still the chillingly provocative love story that speaks to the hearts of audiences worldwide, and the haunting music that accompanies it.
This Detroit production continues through September 27th Tuesdays-Sundays. For showtimes and ticket information, visit Broadway in Detroit.
In 2010, Webber’s sequel to The Phantom of the Opera, called The Phantom: Love Never Dies, is set to premiere. The story moves forward several years to New York City, where the Phantom lures Christine (now married with children to Raoul) to sing once again. I will openly admit I have serious misgivings about this sequel, and I suspect a good number of Phantom fans will too. The Phantom of the Opera is a complete story as it is. To explore it once again is unnecessary, and smacks faintly of “cashing in the cow.” As so many sequels (and those who produce them) so thoughtlessly do, preliminary accounts of the plotline appear dismissive of the soul of the original. Where The Phantom of the Opera is after your heart, this new production just seems to be after your wallet. Purists are bound to be disappointed, and this sequel will likely be no more than a pale shadow of the original. The setting on Coney Island may be intriguing, but the Phantom belongs in his catacombs.