Wednesday, July 13, 2005

"Keep your hand at the level of your eyes..."

[And perhaps just over your eyes, in disgust.]

On Monday, I took up a coworker's offer of free tickets to the national touring company production of "The Phantom of the Opera." The performance last night was what I expected it to be--which is to say, entertaining and generally pleasant.

I've seen Phantom twice before in person, and of course once on the big-screen. As one would expect, each production had its beauties and flaws--some more than others. Last night's performance was no exception.

If you aren't familiar with the story of The Phantom of the Opera, stop reading. If you don't want to hear spoilers about the current touring production, stop reading. If you don't care about the technical minutiae of the show, stop reading.

The Good:

I still really like this show. For all of its melodrama, for all of its cheesiness, it's still a great and often moving piece of musical theatre. The snobs among you will scoff at this, but I think it's true. So when you have great source material--funny, frightening, moving, full of pathos--you're on the right track.

The supporting cast was very capable, overall. The woman playing Madame Giry was pretty well spot-on. "Piangi" was right. Even Carlotta, though not a perfect performance, was still engaging and entertaining. (I must say that after seeing Minnie Driver's shockingly good performance in the film role, the actress last night suffered quite a bit in comparison.) Firmin and Andre were well-played, as well.

The set design and lighting were good, I thought. Granted, I'm no expert on such things. But nothing jumped out at me or caught my attention in the bad way. I liked how the fog ran off the front of the stage like water during the "boat" sequences. Very effective.

Speaking of jumping, the "special effects" were successfully startling. Gunshots, pyrotechnics, all that jazz. The "crashing" of the chandelier was well done.

My favorite costume from the show has been and always will be the Phantom's "Red Death" costume for the "Masquerade" sequence. ("Showing, here.") That was one of my complaints with the film's integrated version of the mask: as scary as the normal Phantom mask may be, the talking skull with the moveable jaw is much more so.

The Bad:

The non-Phantom leads. Raul's voice was weak, weak, weak. It can't even be excused for the sake of "character." He had no volume and no power in his voice. In short, he was a mouse, vocally. And not even a scary mouse.

Christine. ("Christine... Why? Why?") The overwhelming vocal quality that your Christine must possess is that she does not sound like Carlotta. If they are too similar, it draws unwanted comparisons between two supposedly different singers. What I loved about Sarah Brightman's (and Emmy Rossum's, for that matter) voice is that it's... clear, I guess you can say. Less flourish, less vibrato, less performance. Plus, this Christine just wasn't that convincing to me; neither her terror nor her joy moved me.

Meg Giry. Ugh. Forced. Stilted. Unnatural and distracting. She rushed through her lines. [A crash backstage, and she would take a completely unnatural ballet position and sing out, "He'sherethePhantomoftheOperaaah!"] Her blocking was so often unmotivated and completely forced. ["Here let me run over to the other side of the person speaking for no reason and kneel with toe pointed and arms extended...because I can!"] I mean, I get it, she was trained as a ballerina first, but geez. Make it look something approaching realistic.

The script. I HATE HATE HATE that they've updated the book. I learned the songs from the original cast recording, so all these new lines are frustrating. And they're not even good. Example: In "Think of Me," one pair of lines originally went, "Think of all the things we've shared and seen/Don't think about the things which might have been." In the updated version, the first line is changed to "Think of August when the trees are green..." or somesuch nonsense. What. the. crap. is. that. ?!? Who was talking about August? Nonsense.

The large-group numbers. Not the full-company numbers, but the song about the notes, for example. The Andre/Firmin/Carlotta/Piangi/Raul/MegORMme.GiryORChristine numbers. What I remember, and my memory may be wrong, is that you could listen to these songs (in other productions), pick out any of the actors, and hear what they're saying rather clearly. Yet, in this production, you couldn't distinguish half of the actors' lines. It might as well have been the Presidential visit scene from "Red, White, and Blaine" (hubbubhubbubhubbub). I don't know if I'm just expecting too much, but it stopped being carefully woven multi-part singing and just became...noise.

The costumes for the "Masquerade" number seemed a bit... generic? [Actually, my first thought was "half-assed," but that's not entirely fair. Originality is hard--but it should be pursued.]

The Ugly:

All of these problems could have been made up for by a great Phantom. A Phantom that's enigmatic, energetic, scary, sexy, and sympathetic. A hard bill to fill, I understand this; I could never do it myself.

So, as Fred Willard would say on "A Mighty Wind"--"wha' happen?"

First, the Phantom's voice took on a Dudley Do-Right quality. I think it was a bit too high-pitched for this role. And his falsettoes were much too soft and airy. There were moments where he really hit all the right points, I admit that. But I was a bit distracted by how... very not-Michael-Crawford he was. Sucks to be him. He will always be compared to the original. That's tough. He still didn't cut it.

Secondly, and most egregiously, was how he played the character. I blame most of this on the direction. He was a really whiny, weepy Phantom. Example: After Christine pulls off the mask the first time, he goes into "Stranger than you dreamt it..." and all that (which is one of my favorite moments in the show). And the point where he talks about "this repulsive carcass who seems a beast," he starts doing the "crying" voice, which proceeds into a whimpered "Oh, Cristine" that is so high it's almost not heard.

A whimpering Phantom?!? No. friggin. way.

He did it again at the end of show too, when he sends the two lovers away. He sort of flails around the stage from chair to table to organ, like a hormonal and overly emotional teenager whose crush turned him down to go to prom with the captain of the football team.

In short, the Phantom was a wuss. And it pissed me off. Because you have to play him like a badass. A sensitive and caring badass, but a badass nevertheless.

Final Analysis:

Yes, despite all of my petty griping, I still enjoyed the show. It was a worthwhile experience. If I had paid what my seat was worth (about $70, I'm told), I might have been a bit less forgiving, though I still would have enjoyed it. But overall, it's fun to see a national touring production of a Broadway show, especially one of the most iconic shows of modern Broadway.

Dave's "Rock on/Walk out" Verdict: "Rock on/That's all I ask of... youuuuuuuu..."

No comments: