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A CurtainUp Review
The Phantom of the Opera with the first African-American Phantom
By Elyse Sommer
The mask remains even as the men hiding behind it have kept changing, along with the lady who is the subject of the mysterious phantom's obsession. As is the case with many long running musicals with rotating casts, critics are only occasionally asked to re-review when there's something special going on, like a newsworthy cast change or a special anniversary. And while Phantom fans have been known to see the show over and over again, this is fine with most critics. After all, how many times can busy theater journalist be expected to be bowled over by that rising and falling chandelier and Lloyd Webber's soaring and much reprised balladry?
Actually, its not being dependent on the actors creating key roles remaining beyond its first year, that has helped Phantom of the Opera achieve its longevity. Yet, the show's press representatives must use the cast changes to keep the Phantom's name before the public. And when there's a really newsworthy cast change, it's up to them to seize the moment.
Such a moment has arrived with Norm Lewis joining the long list of stellar singers and performers who have stepped into the original Phantom's shoes. Lewis is a long overdue first African-American to play the role. To add to the newsworthiness of this casting, he's not a tenor like most Phantoms and Christine, the object of his impossible love, is Sierra Boggess who was his stage daughter in The Little Mermaid and for whom this is a repeat performance.
And so, to cut right to the chase. Lewis's golden baritone brings a fresh new depth and resonance to the show's best known aria, "The Music of the Night." As a great gilded angel bears him skyward he sings out his heart to heaven. His acting is on a par with everything I've seen him in — in short, it's just fine. Boggess also sings beautifully. The role of Christine doesn't call for much in the way of acting. She just has to look gorgeous and sing her arias well. Boggess delivers on all counts.
Not all roles have rotated as much as the Phantom and Christine. But even Leila Martin who held sway for years as Madame Giry now has a new interpreter — Ellen Harvey.
Having last seen Phantom . . . in 1999, before the Great Recession, I found myself newly appreciating all the jobs this show creates: Over 30 actors, plus as many musicians, countless backstage worker bees. And that's not counting the many touring companies!
Seeing a long running show with lots of properties and costumes this far into its life, raises the question even more than it did a decade into its run: Is the overall quality on a par with the original or has it turned into a warmed-up edition of the original? Happily, the answer is yes for the first part and no for the second. Anyone unaware of Phantom's longevity, could easily think that it opened within the last 12 months rather than twenty-six years ago. The complicated staging, the orchestra, and the large cast. . .it's all fresh as bread from a hot oven.
As for the show's audience drawing power, even at the traditionally slow Tuesday at which I revisited the Majestic there was nary an empty seat. The only change in the audience is that the large tourist segment of the audience was armed with iphone cameras. Without tell-tale flashlights to bring ushers with "no- nos" about in house photos, plenty of people snapped away.
While I couldn't help once again wishing for less reliance on the famous chandelier and other theatrical pyrotechnics as well as some rationing of the syrup and reprises of the more memorable numbers. But then there's something glorious and fun about seeing this spectacle of spectacles blow smoke, trot out luscious costumes galore and much reprised songs with ear piercing crescendo. Seeing that Ziegfeld Follies style staircase fill up at the top of the second act so that the large cast seems even bigger is downright thrilling at a time when even more modest enterprises can't afford anything close to this grandeur.
And so, as I do, pack away your quibbles about sharper lyrics and less repetitive songs, and accept Phantom on its own terms — as an easy to enjoy, visually take-your-breath-away entertainment on the grandest of grand scales.