In Arts & Entertainment Reviews

"The Phantom of the Opera" plays at the Marcus Center through March 17. (PHOTO: Matthew Murphy)

"Phantom of the Opera" still casts a haunting spell at the Marcus Center

In 2014, "The Phantom of the Opera" arrived at the Marcus Center with a major facelift – or should we call it a masklift?

The now thirtysomething smash hit came with new staging, a new amplified sense of haunting atmosphere and new special effects befitting a true Broadway blockbuster. Meanwhile the beloved story itself was left mostly untouched, creating a production that could please fans old, new and even the particularly persnickety opera fanatic watching from his typical seat in box 5.

Five years later … well, this time, not much has changed. While the program still boasts "Cameron Mackintosh's spectacular new production," this is more of an encore performance than a new one in its own right, at most a re-tinkering rather than a reimagining. But it's definitely still spectacular, and while "Phantom" fans (Do you call them "fantoms"? Is that a thing?) who saw the show's previous Milwaukee visit may be disappointed by the lack of new tricks, the old ones – or I guess the new old ones – still pack a lot of magic.

The story remains the same: When the leading all-caps diva Carlotta (Trita Moldovan) bails, ballet girl Christine Daae (Kaitlyn Davis) gets the golden opportunity to take over the leading role at a bustling Parisian opera house. But her dream quickly turns into a nightmare when her secretive teacher, the original O.G. aka the Phantom of the Opera (Quentin Oliver Lee), starts exercising some excessive creative control over the theater's oblivious new owners, callously demanding casting changes and lashing out against Christine when she falls in love with her childhood friend Raoul (Jordan Craig). So basically he's the theater world's first fanboy troll – but instead of sending threatening tweets and bringing down Rotten Tomatoes scores, he sends threatening notes and brings down chandeliers.

While the chandelier remains a highlight, both when it quite literally sparks the first act to life and brings it to a spectacularly crashing end, the star of Mackintosh's new rendition is increasingly its staging, most notably the massive center cylinder which spins and opens up to reveal offices, dressing rooms, hidden lairs and more. Similar to its debut during its last run, the set piece isn't just technical wizardry in the name of technical wizardry; the design opens up the scope of the show, adding new locations and constantly taking the viewer's attention to new places on the stage without getting in the way of the story. The production – especially in scenes like the flashback from the cold, dusty auction at the start to the golden, grandiose opera house – truly unfolds before your eyes, seamlessly moving from moment to moment, tableau to tableau.

And what tableaus they are. The opera house sequences are delectably gaudy, dressed in glowing gold, radiating red and, in the case of the second-act opener "Masquerade," shimmering mirrors that treat the eye while also make the dance look even more boisterous and bustling.

But the show shines the most when it heads into the shadows of its gothic-tinged horror roots, whether it's the Phantom's starkly shadowed home or the audience's first trip there with Christine, complete with a haunting trip down stairs seemingly summoned from the darkness and a cavernous boat ride through an eerie blue fog. One particularly chilling highlight comes with "Don Juan Triumphant," as Christine's practice suddenly turns into a tense, eerie nightmare, her peers turning into her inquisitors – and all of that is prelude to the true terror of the show itself, which turns into a dueling duet between Christine and the Phantom, passions and plots ominously swirling and shifting on a stage within the stage.

Again, none of this is discernably new from five years ago, but the production design – from the lighting and design, down to the blocking – hasn't lost any of its mesmerizing, haunting power either.

What is provably new, however, is the cast, which refuses to let the lavish, gorgeously lit scenery steal the show. Davis is winning as the Phantom's star protégé Christine; the script only gives her evolution from diminutive ballet girl in the background to dynamite star a few bars in "Think of Me," but Davis makes her growing voice before your eyes and ears an enchantment – and her voice continues to soar from there.

Her only struggle is the show's only struggle: For an epic theatrical romance, her options are suboptimal. Craig does fine work as Raoul, but the part is so underwritten – he basically assumes the role of love interest rather than earns it – and bland that he comes off more third wheel than true romance. As noted in my review from the show's last visit, he's doomed to be nothing more than the other guy in the show – and this rendition does nothing to change that, leaving the horror aspects of the story to resonate much stronger than the love story at its core.

Meanwhile his rival is a petty and possessive guy living in a basement who keeps murdering her co-workers. Somebody get this poor girl a Bumble account – or, better yet, maybe a truly modernized retelling.

All that aside, however, as the famed Phantom, Quentin Oliver Lee steps into the mask impressively. His vocals occasionally strains in places – for example, some of the high notes on his reprise of "All I Ask of You" get lost rather than soar – but otherwise his take ideally tiptoes that fine line of human and menace the role demands, his presence and lording over the characters but his pained, dangerously pounding heart also coming through. He has a commanding gravity on stage, with an air that stays with the audience even after he leaves the spotlight – perfect for such a haunting, and haunted, specter of a character.

The production definitely knows how to give him an entrance and an exit too, between gun shots, hanging co-stars, ghastly mirrors, ghostly apparitions and the occasional blinding fireball. The show has spectacle and bombast in spades – and that's not even including the soaring Andrew Lloyd Webber score, which stays untouched in this production because, well, many of these classic numbers simply can't be. From "Masquerade" and "The Music of the Night" to the organ-pounding intro to "The Phantom of the Opera," these songs still thrill, swooning and swinging gorgeously back and forth from dream and nightmare.

As with this entire production's revisit, it's the same as you remember. But so are the chills it inspires.


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