Andrew Lloyd Webber is perhaps characterized by the divisive responses received when one even mentions his name in the musical theatre community. Often he is heralded as a genius writer of some of the most popular musicals in recent history, such as Cats, Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar, and certainly his best-known hit, The Phantom of the Opera. Equally as often he is derided as a shallow, dull composer whose only talent is delivering to his audiences what they want: a catchy tune you’ll be humming in the car on the way home before promptly forgetting the plot by the next morning. Carrying these opposing viewpoints on my shoulders, I took them with me to my first professional production of Webber’s Phantom.
The performance was held at the AT&T Performing Arts Center, or Winspear Opera House, on Friday, August 15th at 8:00 PM. The principle performers included Cooper Grodin as The Phantom, Julia Udine as Christine, and Ben Jacoby as Raoul. Accompanying them was a reduced orchestra sized to fit in the stage’s somewhat small pit. Though not all of the instruments were immediately visible, it was made clear during the titular song’s performance (“The Phantom of the Opera”) that they included a synthesizer and drum kit, or at least a very high-fidelity drum machine.
I found that Webber’s Phantom somehow managed to satisfy both notions of his compositional abilities at once, separated only by an intermission. The first act frontloads all of what on a pop diva’s album would be considered the “lead singles,” such as the already-mentioned titular song, “The Music of the Night,” and the always-pleasant “Think of Me.” All of these songs were impeccably performed by their respective actors (Udine, Grodin, and Udine again). That said, though this may be chalked up to personal taste, I found that Udine didn’t quite reach the heights she was supposed to when she takes over the performance in “Think of Me,” and instead I much preferred Jaquelynne Fontaine (as Carlotta) in her operatic, adagio rendition. Her soaring vocals complimented the song’s tender melody, and despite the slower tempo she managed to make the song feel as though it was always meant to be slowed down and savored as it is in her performance.
Other than this, the music in Act One is rather dull, samey, or just plain bad, and since the plot didn’t help keep me entertained (forgiving the comparison to a later work, the first act sets up an abusive love triangle between the three principles a la Twilight ), I found myself struggling to stay awake, clinging to each note for dear consciousness. But after the intermission, whether it was the stretch, or the water, or Webber actually making an effort, I found myself enjoying Act Two far more, at least from an entertainment standpoint. The music is better, the plot actually gains some conflict, and the music box even returns as a pseudo-symbolic object, serving to inadvertently suggest a sort of ironic alternative to death for the Phantom.
The music box plays a version of “Masquerade,” performed by the company earlier in the act. The act begins with this song surging forth and is certainly the loudest and most effective awakening to counter the first act’s snooze-fest. Dynamic, crystalline harmonies fill the chorus; a joyful melody and a playful rhythm compliment the party atmosphere. The song swings back and forth from this mode to a quieter, less intense mode as each of the non-Phantom principles get their chance to sing and dance on their own, before ending in a final, cacophonous chorus interrupted by the Phantom’s entrance. In what must be some astonishing farce, Webber manages to create something that is at once spectacular, symbolic (cymbalic?), and listenable.
I left the Winspear relieved that I hadn’t spent the entire performance half-asleep, and overjoyed at the fact that I found something to enjoy about the second act, eager to discuss the surprising plot subtleties, as well as the music that I didn’t feel deserved burning (if space weren’t an issue I would talk on and on about “The Point of No Return”). Otherwise, the Winspear put on a faithful, well-produced show with talented performers who, for the most part, managed to make the best of what they were given. The show itself slogs through a boring first act, but is generally worth sitting through for the second act’s diamonds in the rough.
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