I have a long history with Phantom of the Opera. I was captivated by the story 11 years ago, when I had my first Phantom experience watching the film with Gerard Butler in the title role. I fell in love. Yeah…Butler is a Scottish actor that I adored watching in this spectacular movie. However, I fell in love with the tragic story of the Opera Ghost who lived in the bowels of the Paris Opera House. I lost count of the number of times I watched the film, and I was deeply impacted each time.
I saw my first live performance a couple of years later, in Dallas, TX. The sets, the costumes, the familiar music and storyline, captured me once more. This afternoon was my fifth viewing of the Phantom of the Opera musical. However, several key differences were present today. Thanks to my niece Ashley and my sister Debbie, seven of us watched from front row seats in the Tulsa Performing Arts Center. My sister Linda, niece Nicole, grandson Dayan and his friend, Megan, were present as well. I am utterly ruined for ever watching a play or musical again, from any other vantage point in the theater. To be able to see the facial expressions and the emotions that play across the performers’ faces so enhances the experience for me.
And this was a fresh production of Phantom, with new designs by Paul Brown, new costumes by Maria Bjornson, amazing sets and staging by Laurence Connor and stellar choreography by Scott Ambler. I was absolutely undone by the incredible sets and staging. Genius is the word that came to mind as the stage magically shifted again and again. The freshness meant that as many times as I have seen this production, there was something new this afternoon, something unexpected, to grab my attention. Being on the front row brought interesting experiences as well. When the chandelier exploded at the end of Act 1, I was showered with “glass” (really clear gelatinous pieces of material that disintegrated quickly). The gun explosions and fireballs made me jump. And to my delight, two performers ended up standing next to me during the show. One leaned over and said, “Don’t encourage him,” as I, along with the rest of the audience, applauded and cheered for the humorous conclusion of a number on stage.
The man behind the voice and the mask of the Phantom is relatively new to this tour as well. Chris Mann has stepped into the role of the Phantom and claimed it as his own. I first heard Chris sing during the 2012 season of The Voice, where his rich, classical voice took him all the way to the finals. I voted for Chris, so impressed with his voice and his obvious talent. When I learned, after I had purchased tickets to this performance, that Chris was playing the Phantom, I was thrilled, and excited to see him in the much deserved role.
Chris brought a passion to Phantom that I have missed in the other productions I have seen. The Phantom is a beautiful, tortured soul. He hides his disfigured face by covering it with a mask, but he is gifted with a powerful, mesmerizing voice. His heart, twisted by hurt and rage against the world that shuns him, longs for connection, for love. He attaches that longing to Christine Daae, his young protégé, who in turn, loves Raoul the Vicomte de Chagny, who was once her childhood playmate. There is a love triangle. There is fear. There is blackmail and murder, angst and anger, desire and denial. This story demands deep passion, for that is what is at the heart of it.
Chris delivers perfectly…tapping into those mercurial emotions, allowing them to bring strength and power to his voice and his performance. The musical number, Point of No Return, was the best version I’ve seen, redolent with sensuality and dark desire. Christine was brilliantly portrayed as well, her entwined confusion and awakening sexuality played perfectly by Celia Hottenstein. Smoldering was the word that came to mind as I watched this scene. And then the plaintive plea, from the Phantom to Christine as he knelt before her…”Say you’ll stay with me…” From passion to anguish in a moment. My eyes filled with tears.
This was, without a doubt, the best Phantom production that I have seen. The sets were a marvel. Every cast member was exceptional. I watched with a smile and shining eyes. I laughed. I applauded. I teared up at the end. My heart breaks over the Phantom who seeks beauty, seeks light, seeks love and yet, is denied. Just once, I’d love to see the man who hides in the shadows win Christine, over Raoul. That, however, is a different story. Well done, cast and crew of the Phantom of the Opera, on tour. Thank you for sharing your gifts, your voices. You made my heart soar.