Phantom fans all over the country rejoiced on January 9 as the Broadway production passed Cats as the longest running musical on Broadway (achieved on its 7,486th performance, but it's still going), and fans of the show in Pittsburgh are scurrying to see the touring production in its third visit since the early 1990s. The popularity of the of the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Charles Hart-Richard Stilgoe musical is indisputable: an estimated 80 million people have seen one of the many productions offered in over 20 countries around the world since it began in 1986 in London; the show has won over 50 major theatre awards; the original London cast recording was the first in British musical history to enter the music charts at number one and, with sales over forty million worldwide, it is the biggest selling cast album of all time. However, there is no show that everyone loves and this musical certainly has its detractors. By now most people know if they are Phans or not. If it's one of your favorites, this touring production will not disappoint; if the adoration has Phantom has always baffled you, there's nothing extraordinary here to abate that, but neither will your displeasure increase. It's a perfectly pleasant, well-presented production.
Possibly more amazing than the show's popularity is the feat of touring such an expansive concoction: it takes 20 48-foot trucks to transport the sets (including a 1-1/2 ton staircase and the famous 1,000 pound chandelier with 35,000 beads), 230 costumes, and equipment. However they do it, it is all well in place here, even if it seems to test the limits of the adaptability of the Benedum stage. The decorated proscenium is quite impressive and lends a sense of permanence to the overall staging, unlike most touring shows. At least this beautiful display is allowed to be left in place for four weeks during its healthy stay in the city.
Based on the novel "Le Fantôme de l'Opéra" by Gaston Leroux, the well-known story follows the disfigured Phantom who haunts the basement and hidden corners of the Paris Opera House. He takes on a muse in ingenue singer Christine Daaé, who seeks someone to guide her as she has been devastated by the death of her father. She thinks the Phantom is the "angel of music" her father promised he'd send to her. The Phantom provides a chance for Christine to make her lead stage debut by helping opera star Carlotta Giudicelli to the sidelines. On the same evening, Christine's childhood friend, Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny, witnesses her triumphant performance and rushes to her dressing room to rekindle their relationship. The Phantom seeks to continue his tutelage of Christine in his "lair," deep in the hidden bowels of the opera house. The Phantom's obsession grows; Raoul helps Christine realize what the Phantom is doing; and the story builds to a climactic scene of Christine choosing between the two men.
Lloyd Webber's pseudo-operatic score is demanding for the lead players (the tour offers an alternate actress playing Christine for most Saturday matinees and Sunday evenings). For several roles, the characters are supposed to be superb singers, so anything less won't do. Luckily, this cast does not disappoint. Gary Mauer as The Phantom and Marie Danvers as Christine, both well experienced in the show (Danvers even played Christine in the other Phantom musical, by Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit ), are assured and commendable performers. Danvers soars on "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again," and Mauer is very accomplished at showing the changes effected in the Phantom by play's end. I would have wished for a tad less amplification on these two - they did not need the level provided for them, and it turned some of the most powerful notes harsh. John Cudia is splendidly voiced as Raoul, and offers a strong and steadfast hero.
What a joy is Kim Stengel as Carlotta - glorious in voice and perfectly diva-ish without being hysterical. She is the longest running Carlotta worldwide, yet there is no lack of energy or commitment. Carlotta's opera partner Piangi is played equally well by John Whitney. As the two new opera house owners, Messrs. Firmin and André, David Cryer and D.C. Anderson are dynamic. Anderson in particular takes advantage of the brief opportunity to offer a little comic relief without going over the top.
Whether the sound of the famous organ riff gives you chills, or the sound of the synthesizer makes your cringe, this might be the Phantom production for you to revisit to see some very good performances in a lush production. The Phantom of the Opera, at the Benedum Center through January 29. For performance and ticket information, visit www.pgharts.org.