By Morgan Politzer
The opening notes of a grand pipe organ and pulsing beat of a drum that fills the room and mirrors the pounding of an ever-present heart can only mean one thing: The Phantom of the Opera has returned, and this time, he has all of Baltimore under his spell.
Based on Gaston Leroux’s novel “Le Fantôme de l’Opéra,” director Harold Prince’s rendition of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s immortal rock opera (at least, immortal since its opening in1986) at the Hippodrome Theatre in Baltimore does not disappoint and is a glimpse into the glamorous world of late 19th century Paris.
As that wonderfully creepy, cymbal-banging monkey takes us back to a time of grand nights at the opera, the Ballet Chorus of the Opera Populaire fills the stage. Dancers dressed in red, green, and gold sequins dance and spin in an intricate ballet routine as a rehearsal for the opera house’s production is underway. Quietly lurking deep in the labyrinth below the theater is the Phantom of the Opera (Derrick Davis) himself, plotting ways to continue his reign of terror after the opera house’s production is in shambles. Determined to prove his presence to the theater’s pompous and skeptical new owners, Monsieur Firmin (David Benoit) and Monsieur André (Rob Lindley), he wreaks havoc on the company of the production.
It is here that we first meet our heroine, Miss Christine Daaé (Emma Grimsley). She is plucked from obscurity in the corpse de ballet after the fantastically hateful and ridiculous Carlotta (but gorgeously talented Trista Moldovan) refuses to continue as the lead role until the mayhem caused by the Phantom is stopped. Grimsley’s smile is electric, filling the room with growing confidence and charisma as she sings with a voice of glittering diamonds and crystals. She manages to encapsulate both youthful energy and the maturity of an adult in her heartfelt performance of “Think of Me.”
The Phantom is immediately captivated by her and her talent. On the night of her debut, Christine’s childhood friend and our dashing hero Raoul (Jordan Craig) sees her perform, and the two men begin to vie for her love and affection. After watching the rekindled romance of first love between Christine and Raoul, we are finally treated to that echoing voice of the infamous Phantom of the Opera. It is here that Andrew Lloyd Webber proves himself to be unmatched, as the opening notes of “The Phantom of the Opera” fill the room as a jealous Phantom whisk, Christine away to his secret lair. The deep, rich voice of this mystery man behind the mask seamlessly melds with Grimsley’s in chilling harmonies and that impossibly high final note as they enter his smokey dungeon aboard a fiery ship.
Flowing effortlessly into “Music of the Night,” Davis’ once bold, the operatic voice becomes like smooth honey, cascading down upon his audience in graceful, sweet ribbons. The Phantom’s tough exterior is gone for just a moment as Davis shows us the pain and honesty of the man that hides his face from the world before once again becoming a man caught between heroism and villainy.
As the love between Raoul and Christine grows, so too does the Phantom’s lust for her. Her “Angel of Music” becomes her nightmare as she is forced to do his bidding, finding peace only in Raoul’s promises of love. In his well-tailored tuxedo and admirable bravado, Craig exudes confidence and romance as he swears to protect her in a vow of eternal love during a swoon-worthy performance of “All I Ask of You.”
Act I closes with perhaps one of the greatest finales in theater as the Phantom’s heartbreaking anguish materializes during his reprise of “All I Ask of You.” Full of pain and longing to be loved and accepted, the Phantom brings the shimmering chandelier that hangs high and mighty over the theater crashing down in an epic display of sparks and bangs before the lights shut out to the sound of the pipe organ singing once again.
Act II opens with the same energy left behind by Act I, this time during the elegant “Masquerade” musical number, as girls in jewel-colored dresses and glittering masks twirl around the stage in one of the greats of musical theater ballroom dance sequences. As dancers swirl faster and faster in a swish of skirts and feathered headpieces, the Phantom barges in dressed as the Red Death, swearing dire consequences if his demands of the theater and Christine are not met.
Terrified of what will happen if she refuses, Christine does what we have come to expect from all of our musical theater heroines- a goosebump raising, tear-jerking, emotional power anthem. Grimsley holds her audience captive in the palm of her hand during her rendition of “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again,” casting a spell broken only by the sound of thunderous applause.
The production culminates in an epic rendition of “The Point of No Return” between the Phantom and Christine as they disappear into his lair once more. It is at this moment that the Phantom’s true complexity as a character materializes. He represents the most basic struggle of inner good versus inner evil, shifting as fast as the beat of the music from being a character we love, detest and pity.
Davis’ elegant and intense performance reminds us that while we sympathize with the Phantom, he is plagued by this inexplicable darkness. We are torn between his desire to love and his ability to hate, and yet we cannot help but forgive him for all of his well-intentioned but poorly executed attempts at romance and love.
While the cast of this touring production is wildly talented, no show, and especially not this one, would be complete without an impressive feat of technology, lighting, sound and costumes. From the chandelier to the effortless scene transitions to the impossible sets to the period costume pieces, “The Phantom of the Opera” continues to raise the bar and set the all-around standard of production, rich with the talent and entertainment we have come to expect from our favorite opera ghost.
The Phantom of the Opera runs at The Hippodrome Theater at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center in Baltimore through October 20.
Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of Alastair Muir.
Morgan Politzer is a senior journalism major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.