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REVIEW: Darkly Beautiful Phantom of the Opera‘s Triumphant Return (Orpheum/Hennepin Theatre Trust)

Christine (Eva Tavares) and Raoul (Jordan Craig) snatch a kiss in the Broadway tour of The Phantom of the Opera. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

They say you never forget your first love. This is at the crux of The Phantom of the Opera‘s plot, and even more so in its sequel Love Never Dies. Three decades after it first opened on Broadway, The Phantom of the Opera is still playing strong – now the longest-running Broadway musical in history. This gothic horror romance, now playing at the Orpheum Theatre, is just as powerful as when I saw it twenty years ago on tour. It is also extremely beautiful: musically, visually, and theatrically.

The Phantom (Derrick Davis) tries to win a horrified Christine (Eva Tavares). Photo by Matthew Murphy.

If you’ve never heard the story of The Phantom of the Opera, the musical is an adaptation of a 1910 mystery thriller novel by Gaston Leroux. Long before reality television and was a thing, Leroux wrote his novel as a true crime thriller, grounding it in historical events and legends. A young chorus girl, Christine Daae, is tutored by the mysterious and mostly unseen Phantom. The Phantom sabotages the reigning opera diva La Carlotta’s performances to engineer Christine’s rise to opera stardom, using methods that become increasingly violent and disturbing. Although written in the early 20th century and set in the late 19th century, it has all the hallmarks of a gothic horror romance, spun in the guise of a mystery novel. The story has proven fertile ground for numerous film adaptations and several musicals, of which the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical playing at the Orpheum is the most famous.

Even without taking the beautiful score into mind, this production of The Phantom of the Opera is exquisitely beautiful. The lighting by Paule Constable and the costume design by Maria Björnson combine with the set by Paul Brown to form a splendid tableau – any given moment in a scene looks like a fantastic painting. Real candles, bursts of fire, and breathing machinery – and, of course, the infamous chandelier – decorate the stage. It’s rare to see a show make such full use of the vertical space: numerous scenes have integral action passing from above the proscenium arch down to the stage and everywhere in-between. It is a sumptuous visual feast, especially the closer you sit to the stage and can feel as well as see some of the effects.

The musical score of Phantom scarcely needs an introduction, being a perennial favorite of both musical theatre and non-musical theatre fans. The spot-on pit orchestra was directed by Jamie Johns, paired a stellar cast of performers. Eva Tavares’s Christine is played younger than some, which works very well in the butterfly transformation of “Think of Me” and even better in the push-me-pull-you exchanges with Derrick Davis’s Phantom. Tavares and co-star Jordan Craig (Raoul) have strong chemistry, but you’d be hard-pressed to pick favorites, what with the masterful comic timing displayed by Firmin (David Benoit), André (Edward Staudenmayer), Carlotta (Trista Moldovan), and others. The vocals are simply gorgeous, especially in complex and interwoven numbers like “Prima Donna”.

The famous “Masquerade” scene, which recalls the Hall of Mirrors at the Opéra Garnier in Paris. Photo by Alistair Muir.

What has changed most about Phantom over the years is the result of the 2004 film adaptation by Joel Schumacher, whose visual influence drove an update of the stage design that came to fruition in 2012. There are more chorus members and fewer automata in this version – the original had lifesized puppets to fill out the crowd in “Masquerade” – and a massive turning and transforming set piece in the center. Gone is the famous chair at the end, but iconic moments like the misty boat ride – one of the most famous and expensive uses of dry ice in theatre – are still there with their own tweaks. If you saw Phantom of the Opera back in the day (and didn’t catch the 2013 tour), it’s clearly an upgrade in terms of spectacle. The major performance change is a wordless tweak to how Christine and the Phantom interact, which helps set up the connection with Love Never Dies – Andrew Lloyd Webber’s sequel to Phantom that also plays at the Orpheum in June.

It’s a rare and brilliant coup by the Hennepin Theatre Trust and Broadway Across America to have The Phantom of the Opera and Love Never Dies in the same season. It’s a combo not to be missed.

The Phantom (Derrick Davis) leads Christine (Eva Tavares) into his lair. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The Phantom of the Opera plays through December 31 at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, MN.

Basil Considine