by Don Church & Tony Schillaci
“Phantom of the Opera,” the most successful entertainment venture of the 20th-century, will be thrilling Connecticut audiences at Hartford’s Bushnell through May 10, 2009.
What an eye-popping 1st-act opening: A massive beaded chandelier flies up to the ceiling, and later crashes onto the stage; voluminous billowy draperies disappear into the roof to reveal an ornate replica of a Paris Opera proscenium arch.
The audience gasped in unison and was immediately drawn into this Cecil B. DeMille-style spectacle that has earned $5 billion worldwide and been seen by more than 80 million people in 124 cities in 25 countries.
In the second act the Phantom attacks his rival Raoul with a flame-thrower and then and sets the stage on fire while screaming his love Christine’s name! Such over-the-top melodrama, such angst, such yelling, such a show!
It’s exciting stage entertainment for all ages. Almost. The “Phantom of the Opera” libretto was written by Richard Stigoe and Andrew Lloyd Webber. It’s an overwrought Victorian melodrama that will be adored by soap-opera and romance-novel devotees. And for us, it’s easy to overlook the 19th-century sturm-und-drang because of the magnificent performances by the principle singers, fine supporting cast and dancers; superb musical supervision and direction; spectacular set design – especially the dazzling scenic effects; and the richly conceived period costumes These crafts masterfully succeed in serving the show’s era and Parisian setting.
The sound design could have been better; some of the dialogue and lyrics were, at times, difficult to understand. Nevertheless, this spectacular production is still worth every bit of the price of admission.
And what a spectacle it is! From the opening ballet ‘rehearsal’ set in front of a painted background of ancient Carthage/Egypt, the hugeness of this theatrical event draws you in. The Slave Master’s masculinity contrasts perfectly with the slave girl corps-de-ballet, and the colorfully costumed comic Hannibal and his queen are upstaged only by the effective prop elephant that dwarfs the performers.
While the entire cast is excellent, the three major roles, performed by outstanding singers, deserve many curtain calls and critical praise. John Cudia as The Phantom, Trista Moldovan as Christine, and Sean MacLaughlin as Raoul thrill the audience with their exceptional vocal and acting gifts. These are three performers who are destined to play all the theater’s star parts well into the future.
John Cudia holds the distinction of being the only performer to have starred on Broadway in both “Phantom” and “Les Misérables.” For Sean Laughlin, this production is his first starring role in a musical. His magnificent natural vocal gifts and well-honed acting talent combined to give the audience one of the best performances of the evening.
Of the three major songs, “The Music of the Night,” “All I Ask of You,” and the haunting “The Point of No Return,” the former two have become much loved by people around the world, and the later ranks among the greatest theater art songs of our time. They are reprieved throughout the show as songs as well as instrumental background music.
Although we have seen previous productions of this award-winning favorite, this incarnation is better in some aspects with this first-rate tour company, especially theater-legend Hal Prince’s direction. In one previous edition, the scene and lighting changes were so swift they killed the applause for every solo, duet and ensemble number. Not so in this 21st-first century production; there are appropriate pauses to let the audience applaud the end of a song or scene.
When will this record-breaking Broadway phenomenon end in New York, or on the road? This company is going to take a break in August and then its back on the road for a two-year run with options for, well, forever.
“The Phantom of the Opera” will play at The Bushnell through Sunday, May 10, 2009. Ticket prices range from $28 to $82. Student and senior prices at some performances. All tickets are currently on sale at the theater at 166 Capitol Avenue, Hartford, and online at www.bushnell.org or by calling 860.987.5900.