A “Phantom” to Fall For

The beautifully macabre 25th anniversary production at the Orpheum

When the chandelier dropped, popped, and exploded at the end of the first act—sorry, did I give too much away?—my wife felt something land in her lap: a piece of glass. Rubber, actually, but realistic. Well played, sir. After 25 years, The Phantom of the Opera still has a few tricks up its sleeve.

The first new touring production in three years, playing through January 5 at the Orpheum Theatre, didn’t need to work this hard. The Brett Favre of musicals, Phantom holds the record by a large margin for the longest-running show on Broadway (25 years and counting). With an estimated worldwide take of $5.6 billion, it’s made more money than the biggest-grossing film (Avatar at $2.8 billion, if you can believe it, and you shouldn’t without considering inflation). By these measures and several others, it’s the greatest entertainment phenomenon of all time.

As it was in the beginning, it’s a crowd-pleaser loaded with special effects—fireworks, an apparition-filled mirror, trapdoors, and, of course, that wicked chandelier. But as crowd-pleasers go, it’s an incredibly warped one: No one should be smiling so much at a story about a deformed and murderous musician offering his services—musical and otherwise—to a young woman at the ultimate price. And yet, as Frank Rich wrote in his New York Times review of its 1988 premiere, “It may be possible to have a terrible time at The Phantom of the Opera, but you’ll have to work at it.” It goes down easy and it stays there, the simple tunes stuck in your gut as much as your head.

Funny thing is, Andrew Lloyd Webber thought this would finally be—after trains and cats and Christ—his first great romance. It’s not: even by musical standards, the amorous motivations of Christine, and even more so Raoul, her blandly handsome suitor, are missing in action. The Phantom’s motivations are clear enough—he’s a frustrated virgin in the sewer—but his unrequited kidnapping isn’t tear-jerking, just jerky.

And that’s where the new production covers some of the original’s gaping emotional holes. Little of the ’80s synthesizer and drum-machine orchestration remains (just a snippet for old time’s sake) in favor of a lush, darkly classical sound in tune with the Phantom’s steampunk organ, underscoring the Faustian bargain at play and existential angst of a man cast into a living hell. As the Phantom, Mark Campbell is imposing and seductive in equal measure, using his size and soaring voice to command the stage and his would-be wife. After 25 years, we know she’s having none of it, yet right up to the end he doesn’t seem willing to accept that. If he wasn’t so loose with the fireballs, Lloyd Webber might have had his romance, if not a hit.

The Phantom of the Opera
Playing now through Jan. 5
Orpheum Theatre