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Saturday, October 12, 2019

‘Phantom’ Brings its Power to the Hippodrome

Derrick Davis as the Phantom and Emma Grimsley as Christine
Photo: Matthew Murphy

As Halloween season approaches, it is fitting that Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre presents the touring production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic The Phantom of the Opera

The legendary first notes heard from the Overture signal the spooky drama that is about to unfold. Replete with its masked ghoulish villain, a masquerade ball, exquisite imaginative costumes, horror, terror and fog, the atmosphere is just right for the Halloween mood. There are many tricks devised by the technical crew, and as a whole, the splendidly dramatic musical is a treat#hocoarts

Cameron Mackintosh’s production of Phantom remains largely faithful to the record-breaking original that has celebrated three decades on Broadway and still counting. Under the meticulous direction by Laurence Connor, this iteration of the musical is substantially different from its last appearance in Baltimore three years ago. It is more powerful with its larger and more ornate sets, increased special effects and an abundance of pyrotechnics throughout.
  
The Phantom of the Opera, which had opened on London’s West End 33 years ago, featuring the incomparable award-winning Michael Crawford in the title role, was scored by Lloyd Webber with lyrics by Charles Hart and additional lyrics by Richard Stilgoe. It captured seven Tony Awards in 1988 including Best Musical and is among the highest grossing musicals of all time.

The love story-thriller is best known for its memorable songs, such as the rousing title number “The Phantom of the Opera,” the gorgeous and a personal favorite “The Music of the Night,” the tender ballad “All I Ask of You,” and the romantic “Wishing You Were Somehow Here.” It’s also known for the iconic dropping of a crystal chandelier over the audience (that doesn’t actually land, thank Goodness).

Based on the classic French novel Le Fantôme de L’Opéra by Gaston Leroux, Phantom’s familiar story binds the glorious music together.  It centers on a disfigured musical genius (The Phantom of the Opera played by Derrick Davis) who lurks in the labyrinths below the Paris Opera House in the mid-19th century.  He is completely obsessed with a young innocent soprano Christine Daaé (Emma Grimsley) whom he had taught. 

Through the use of threats, terror and even murder, he insists that the ingénue receive lead roles in current and future opera offerings.  All the while, a former childhood friend of Christine, Raoul, the Vicomte de Chagny (Jordan Craig), falls in love with Christine as she does with him.  However, Christine is torn between her love for Raoul and her gratitude towards the Phantom of the Opera for his teaching her to sing so beautifully.  This leads to the famously heart-pounding conclusion.

Paul Brown’s exquisite set design that includes the signature rising and crashing crystal chandelier allows for smooth transitions employing a rotating floor-to-ceiling cylindrical wall that opens up into various scenes as well as dropdown devices for a wide range of settings.  Among them are: the opera house stage, the manager’s office, the underground labyrinth, the Phantom’s lair, the grand ballroom and a graveyard.  For its part, the opera house set is a massive, multi-level ornate, gilded structure that frames the stage, which includes theater boxes. It is simply awesome.

"There are many tricks devised by the technical crew, and as a whole, the splendidly dramatic musical is a treat."

Large set pieces, such as oversized statues, are on display. And there are numerous special effects, especially startling pyrotechnics that display very intense shooting flames at times, amplifying the drama that unfolds. 

Fog and strobe effects are also used to embellish the spooky atmosphere and are evident during the gondola scene in the labyrinth and the cemetery. When do you ever see a cemetery scene that doesn’t include fog?  In fact, there was so much fog downstage that it envelops and virtually swallows up the orchestra leader in the pit, Jamie Johns, who carries on his extraordinary work oblivious to this effect.

Under the musical supervision of John Rigby, Mr. Johns directs Lloyd Webber’s superbly melodic score with excellent balance and proper restraint so that the vocals can rise above the background. When needed, the volume is turned up considerably for dramatic effect.

Paule Constable’s effective lighting creates the right atmospheric moods and furthers the thrilling moments as does Mick Potter’s sound design, which is especially effective during off-stage commentary from The Phantom.  

Costume Designer Maria Björnson brings 19th century French attire to the company with a wide range of dazzling costumes.  The exquisite costumes in the opera scenes and masquerade sequence are manifestations of Ms. Björnson’s great work.

Masquerade scene Photo: Alastair Muir
As the title character, Derrick Davis is more than up to the task.  Called upon to perform challenging and strenuous songs, Mr. Davis excels. His acting abilities are clearly on display as the obsessed villain in the plot with his powerful dialogue and solid movements on the stage. Mr. Davis’ performances of such numbers as “Music of the Night” and the reprise of “All I Ask of You” are delivered with flair and passion while showcasing his strong tenor voice.  

Emma Grimsley as Christine also acts proficiently, and her sweet soprano vocals shine throughout. “Think of Me,”  “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again” and her performances in “The Music of the Night” are notable.  In the latter, Ms. Grimsley ably hits the highest register. The magnificent duet with Mr. Davis in the powerful “The Phantom of the Opera” is a show-stopper.

As Raoul, handsome Jordan Craig adeptly demonstrates his desire for Christine with his acting prowess and through song. Though I find his voice a bit nasal in tone, he performs well in duets with Ms. Davis, “Why Have You Brought Me Here?/Raoul, I’ve Been There” and “All I Ask of You.”  

Trista Muldovan as the diva Carlotta Giudicelli whom Christine replaced in the opera; David Benoit as Monsieur Firmin and Rob Lindley as Monsieur Firmin, the managers of the Paris Opera House; and Sarahgrace Mariani as Christine’s friend Meg Giry also turn in sturdy performances.  Ms. Muldovan lovely voice sparkles in “Think of Me” with Mr. Davis and Ms. Grimsley and “Poor Fool, He Makes Me Laugh.”

The entire company is first-rate and energetic. Under the choreography of Scott Ambler, the ensemble’s magnificently costumed presentation of “Masquerade/Why So Silent” is a standout, and their performances in the opera scenes also hit the mark.

Phantom’s powerful visit to Baltimore is a welcome one in which great music, staging and performances do justice to the classic original that will play on with no end in sight.  The production at the Hippodrome is highly recommended for all audiences and just in time to get into the Halloween mood.

Running time. Two hours and 30 minutes with an intermission.

The Phantom of the Opera runs through October 20 at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.  For tickets, visit Ticketmaster.com, BaltimoreHippodrome.com, call 800-982-ARTS, or visit the Hippodrome Box Office located at 12 N Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.

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