“The Phantom of the Opera” at the Orpheum Theatre: An Exploration of What Makes a Show Successful

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Cameron Mackintosh is at it again as he brings a revamped version of the longest-running Broadway musical, The Phantom of the Opera, to North America. The show, playing at the Orpheum Theater in Minneapolis, December 13th – January 5th, has been beautifully updated á la Mackintosh, bringing in an almost completely new production team (see also: Les Misérables). The new production team includes tremendous set design by Paul Brown, diverse choreography by Scott Amber, epic lighting design by Paule Constable, and direction by Laurence Connor (also the director of Les Misérables. Noticing a pattern?). What the updated production hasn’t changed are the stunning costumes by Maria Björnson.The Phantom of the Opera is, from a production standpoint, flawless. What is flawed is the book, written by Richard Stilgoe.

The Phantom of the Opera is the story of a theater in Paris in the 1880s, haunted by a phantom composer. The phantom, maybe a ghost, maybe a sneaky man, it’s unclear, chooses Chorus girl Christine Daaé as his student and teaches her to sing. He then threatens the rest of the theater telling them he will kill if Christine is not made the star. There is also a man named Raoul who Christine is sometimes in love with. But it’s confusing. The storyline of The Phantom of the Opera reveals a lot about what makes a musical successful (hint: it’s not the story). What does seem to make a musical with a poor story still successful is good music and beautiful set design, of which Phantom has both.

The music, composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber, is an epic and refreshing nod to classic musical theater while also being an eclectic mix of musical styles, appealing to many palates. There is operatic music showcased in the overture and “Poor Fool, He Makes Me Laugh”, comedic songs such as “Notes”, 80s synth music like “The Phantom of the Opera,” the classic musical theater song with a dance break that is “Masquerade”, and many ballads such as “Think of Me”, “Angel of Music”, and “Music of the Night”. Andrew Lloyd Webber has a skill for melodies, making every number hummable and unique; an artistry that seems to be dying out. Along with being beautiful, Lloyd Webber’s score is also a feat to sing successfully. The current touring cast does not seem to have any problems, though. The most impressive voice is that of the Patti Lupone-esque diva Carlotta Guidicelli, played by soprano Jacquelynne Fontaine. Her operatic voice, not usually heard in modern musical theater, is a treat and captures the feelings of late 19th century Paris. The voices of Christine and Raoul, played by Julia Rose Udine and Ben Jacoby are also notable. The phantom, however, played by Mark Campbell, is not up to par. He sounded as if he needed a drink of water the whole time. Maybe that’s all it was, but it was unimpressive and disappointing.

     The design aspect of Phantom is impeccable. The sets are intricate, massive, and appropriate for the time. The spooky lighting aids in creating a haunted feeling. The costumes are beautiful, elegant, and era-appropriate. The choreography appears effortless, especially the ballet, a dance form rarely seen in musical theater. All of these elements work together to create a show that is visually rewarding in every way.

     The visual and musical beauty of The Phantom of the Opera is apparently enough to override the holes in the plot, as it’s lasted 25 years and doesn’t seem to be losing steam. Keep that in mind if you’re looking to write a longest-running Broadway musical, I guess (let’s take a moment to remember that Catsis second on the list). If a poorly executed story that is visually gratifying appeals to you, then go see Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera. But if you are, like me, hoping to understand what’s happening and what each character is feeling, it might be best to sit this one out.