THEATER | “Phantom of the Opera” at the Orpheum: Play that funky music of the night, white boy

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When I was a high schooler involved in Serious Theater (I had a one-man version of Long Day’s Journey Into Night), my parents went to see Phantom of the Opera and came home with a souvenir button. “I thought you’d like this,” said my dad, bless his heart, “because you’re into theater.” I felt like Lisa Simpson in the episode where she receives a pobody’s nerfect cap from her mom. “It’s clever, Lisa—just like you!”

My principled contempt for Phantom kept me from seeing it until last night, when the currently touring production opened at the Orpheum Theatre. I decided that, as an arts journalist, it was really inexcusable for me to miss another opportunity to see what is not only the most commercially successful theatrical production of all time, it’s (by the producers’ math) “the most successful entertainment venture of the 20th century.” The longest-running show in Broadway history. Five billion dollars in worldwide grosses. By rough calculation, that’s at least 250,000 times the gross of my favorite show of 2008.

I was right—I needed to see Phantom. And so do you. If you have little to no interest in theater, you’ll be wowed by the pyrotechnics and won’t nitpick about the dramaturgy. If you do have any interest in theater, you’ll appreciate the fact that Phantom virtually defines what we now think of when we refer to a “Broadway musical.” It has a couple of good tunes, and that’s more than it needs. As a piece of high-octane stagecraft, it hums like a Ferrari.

Do you need to be told what the plot is? Okay. It’s the Victorian era. There’s this theater. It’s haunted by a guy (at last night’s performance, a pleasingly Welles-like Stephen Tewksbury) who’s not actually a phantom but is really smart and crafty and lives in a hidden underground lair accessible via a trick mirror in the dressing room of budding diva Christine (Trista Moldovan). He’s hideously disfigured, but he’s a musical genius who teaches Christine how to sing well enough to—though this was not exactly the Phantom’s intention—make her childhood friend Raoul (Sean MacLaughlin) fall in love with her. The Phantom gets jealous and raises heck, provoking Raoul into a potentially deadly confrontation. Drama!

phantom of the opera, a musical playing through june 7 at the orpheum theatre, 910 hennepin ave., minneapolis. for tickets ($27-$77) and information, see hennepintheatretrust.org.

Midas-like composer Andrew Lloyd Webber (excuse me, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber) composed the score, which—like a Tom Petty album—hits you with the best numbers right off the top. The opener “Think of Me” is genuinely pretty, and a couple of numbers later the show peaks with the double-whammy of the title song segueing into “The Music of the Night.” By the time Christine was descending into the steamy depths with the Phantom, riding the sketchiest bed-boat outside of the Burnsville FantaSuites, I was sold. The music has thankfully not been re-scored since Phantom‘s 1986 debut, which means that the uptempo numbers sound like the Alan Parsons Project really on top of its game.

But enough about the music; I know what you’re really curious about are the Good Parts. Not the sex scenes (thank God, there are none of those)…I mean the sets. To say the least, they don’t disappoint. For pure scale and spectacle, the Phantom set may be the most impressive I’ve ever seen. Not only are there several fully-realized settings—the opera house stage (set for two different operas), the Phantom’s lair, the opera house staircase, a graveyard, a bridge, and more—the transitions are so smooth that the set design team can afford to pull off almost gratuitous tricks like hiding the Phantom in a flying chunk of gilded façade and switching the set’s orientation so that we suddenly seem to be behind the opera house stage looking out at the audience. Oh, and there are pillars of fire so intense that I felt the heat in row N. If you’re dropping your $27-$77 in hopes of a reelybig show, you will not be disappointed.

If I sound impressed, well, I was. For the most part, this is big-budget bombast done right. The script leaves room for the performers to exercise some genuine wit, and there are actual themes that the production manages to underline rather than muffle. Phantom‘s core audience comprises suburban women in healthy, safe relationships with responsible men (not to mention suburban men in healthy, safe relationships with responsible men). They probably wouldn’t trade their Toro-driving Lancelots for dark-genius Mordreds, but maybe—just maybe—time and again they’ve happened to drive through Uptown in the wee hours and watched the hipster hotties and tattooed love boys of Lyndale getting into drunk, emotional discussions about Art and Life and Loyalty as a lonesome soul at the Country Bar grabs the karaoke mic and howls “The Music of the Night.”

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