Andrew Lloyd Webber’s monster hit “The Phantom of the Opera” washes over its audience in a sea of bombastic ballads, pyrotechnical chicanery and melodramatic themes.
Director Laurence Connor’s new staging of Lloyd Webber’s greatest success has arrived at the Saenger Theatre on the “Broadway in New Orleans” series with all of its morbid sensationalism intact.
Based on Gaston Leroux’s 19th century novel about a ghoulish composer living under the Paris Opera House and harboring a deep, unhealthy attachment for a young singer, “Phantom” is what it has been since 1986: a corpulent self-indulgence that is nonetheless spectacularly entertaining.
You might not feel good about liking it, but from the cobweb projections to the golden proscenium, you can’t help but marvel at the showmanship.
Despite its on-the-nose pounding of sound, fury and recitative, it’s clear why this show has become the longest-running musical in theatrical history.
Boasting a series of wildly popular tunes, including the title song and “The Music of the Night,” this “Phantom” features strong vocal performances from its three leads and an imposingly opulent design from scenic artist Paul Brown.
As the title character, Cooper Grodin — like Darrick Pead in the Saenger’s earlier “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” — manages to project shafts of humanity through his heavily made-up monster.
His final moments are particularly moving, even though most of his face is unable to project emotions due to prosthetic additions. Instead, he uses his posture to convey an emotional exhaustion and heartbreak that carries the evening to a cathartic conclusion in spite of the plot’s utter absurdity.
As the object of the Phantom’s affections, Julia Udine is both fragile and resilient as Christine. Along with having the voice to pull off songs of lament like “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again,” Udine is also able to give the character enough playfulness to prevent the role from descending into a series of whines and complaints.
And Ben Jacoby, as Raoul, the vicomte who steals Christine’s heart from her deformed tutor, is perhaps the best of the trio. He fearlessly plays the hero’s more unattractive qualities of jealousy and anger to their hilt. As a result, he prevents the role from drifting into stereotype and infuses the song “Wandering Child” with actual stakes. It forces the audience to see the dilemma Christine faces in choosing between the two men.
The three leads are ably supported by Jacquelynne Fontaine as the comical diva Carlotta, Christy Morton as the mysteriously officious Madame Giry and Frank Viveros as the pompous leading man Ubaldo Piangi.
But the star of the evening, along with Lloyd Webber’s famous score, is the collection of theatrical bells and whistles employed to produce the requisite “ooohs” and “aaahs” from all in attendance.
The design succeeds to the point of swallowing its performers.
If you are familiar with the show’s initial production, you will find that this new staging still has all the magic-box sensibilities of its first incarnation. If this is your first “Phantom,” don’t worry, the show’s original energies are still intact.
Assisted by Paule Constable’s chiaroscuro lighting and Mick Potter’s immersive soundscape, designer Brown fills the proscenium arch of the Canal Street theater with every imaginable sort of legerdemain.
Stairwells emerge from walls, buildings spin to reveal offices and spin again to become backstage wings — and just when you think the possibilities have been exhausted, snow falls on neoclassical statues and massive tombstones.
And yes, the chandelier swings, ignites and descends.
Guiding his gondola across foggy waters, the Phantom serenades Christine in one of the most iconic theatrical images of the past 50 years. The moment speaks to everything right and wrong about the show.
We are left breathless by the skill, the virtuosity and the romantic vision of Lloyd Webber and his collaborator/producer Cameron Mackintosh, but at the same time, the unending and overwhelming reliance on big effects from both the technical elements and the score itself makes the viewer long for quiet, tender moments.
Sadly, those are provided in only fleeting fashion by the human beings who inhabit the landscape of Lloyd Webber’s dreams. Occasionally, he allows them to be the point.
Jim Fitzmorris writes about theater. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.