Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 24, 2014
The Phantom of the Opera Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Lyrics by Charles Hart. Additional lyrics by Richard Stilgoe. Book by Richard Stilgoe & Andrew Lloyd Webber. Based on the novel “Le Fantôme de L’Opéra” by Gaston Leroux. Directed by Harold Prince. Musical Staging & Choreography by Gillian Lynne. Production Design by Maria Björnson. Lighting by Andrew Bridge. Sound Design by Mick Potter. Original Sound Design by Martin Levan. Orchestrations by David Cullen & Andrew Lloyd Webber. Cast: Norm Lewis, Sierra Boggess, Jeremy Hays, Laird Mackintosh, Tim Jerome, Michele McConnell, Ellen Harvey, Christian Šebek, Polly Baird. At certain performances Sara Jean Ford plays the role of “Christine”.
I’ve seen, and/or listened to cast recordings of, The Phantom of the Opera dozens of times, but it wasn’t until my most recent return trip to the Broadway production at the Majestic that that lyric really hit me. What had always before sounded like nothing more than the manic, paranoiac complaint of a diseased mind rang out with a deeper, sadder, and scarier subtext that cast the long-running Andrew Lloyd Webber musical in a cold but clear new light.
On one level, the reason is simple. Its singer, the Phantom, is now being played by Norm Lewis, who is also the first African-American actor to perform the role on Broadway, and only the second to do so in a major production. (Robert Guillaume, who replaced the role’s creator, Michael Crawford, in the original Los Angeles production, was the first.) And, for better or worse, his presence forces a complete revamp and rethink of this show, which has amassed nearly 11,000 performances across its history-making 26-year Broadway run.
I’m willing to admit that Crawford, or other performers who worked intimately with director Harold Prince in the early years of the show (before I came to it), may have unlocked and presented psychological explanations for the Phantom’s solitude that have eluded most of the (even otherwise excellent) men I’ve seen in the role. But Lewis uses his character’s skin color to explain not others’ actions, but his own, something that’s reinforced by the sea of white, unblemished faces that fill Paris’s Opera Populaire, which the Phantom designed and under which he’s made his home.
Lewis’s Phantom is propelled by the insecurity of being what he perceives as two kinds of monster, the second the result of the brutal scarring he keeps forever hidden beneath that iconic half-mask. Every other actor I’ve seen in the role has exuded a confidence that all but declares, “I’d be perfect if not for just this one thing.” Lewis comes across as the most insecure yet, and tragically so: a doubly cursed inventor-architect-composer who secretly believes he’s brilliant but knows that, even if he could reconstruct his face, he’d always be branded as too different to show the world.
Almost all this works within the established framework of the show, which has not been significantly changed to accommodate Lewis. (The most notable difference is the restoration of the cemetery trio for the Phantom, Christine, and Raoul, which is on the original cast recording but has never before been heard in New York.) If there are a few missteps — Lewis’s bare hands in “The Point of No Return,” for example, give away that game too early — Lewis’s supple, thundering voice sears through most every scene, and in its most rumbling growls and whispering lows is unrecognizable from the one he’s previously deployed in musicals as diverse as Side Show, The Wild Party, and 2012’s Porgy and Bess.
The bad news is that, despite Lewis’s abundant gifts, he’s not a natural vocal fit for the role. Though his singing is always gutsy and valiant, he’s unmistakably a baritone now occupying a role written for a tenor. When the music pulls him up, either via singing or screaming, to Gs and A-flats, Lewis thins out his sound considerably, sacrificing much of the romantic power with which the role has always been associated, and flattening out sections of the show that have always worked before.
If Lewis has no trouble negotiating lower numbers, such as the insinuating “Angel of Music” or the erotic “Point of No Return,” at least at the performance I attended, “The Music of the Night” was a disaster: airy and weak, all about vocal production rather than seduction, and climaxing in the most unpleasant- and painful-sounding crack I have ever heard from a Broadway singer. “She doesn’t have the voice,” Carlotta spits about Christine at one point; for the Phantom, Lewis, I’m sorry to report, simply doesn’t have the voice, either.
Hays is one of the best Raouls I’ve seen, more naturally courageous than most, and singing without a trace of wispiness. Nor is there much fault to be found with the other support — which also includes Ellen Harvey (late of the How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying revival) as an unusually comically cynical Madame Giry; Polly Baird as her envious dancing daughter, Meg; and Christian Šebek as the overstuffed principal tenor Pianigi — though McConnell does make for an atypically soft and (relatively) sympathetic Carlotta.
Beyond that, Webber’s music has lost none of its epic sweep as played by the 26-member orchestra under the baton of David Caddick. A new amplification system (by Mick Potter), installed prior to the 25th anniversary, has the show sounding better than ever. The sumptuous production elements (the set and costumes are by the late Maria Björnson, the lights are by Andrew Bridge, the choreography by Gillian Lynne) continue to surpass most newer stuff on Broadway. Sure, the special effects (the infamous chandelier, the flying flames in Act II) are no longer as spectacular as once they seemed, and the lyrics (by Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe) and book (by Stilgoe and Webber) remain somewhat clunky. But they’re all an inescapable part of a show that, like it or not, still holds up after more than a quarter-century.
I’d even go so far as to say that Lewis’s casting, even if it’s less than ideal in some respects, proves the show has more potential than it’s usually given credit for: It can thrive on its people and their unique personalities, and doesn’t need to be as mechanical as it’s often accused of. There is leeway here, and plenty of it; if it’s recognized and made the most of, there’s no reason The Phantom of the Opera couldn’t run another 25 years — and more than earn every minute of that time.