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Theatre & Performance Phantom of the Opera: Some phantoms should remain forever in the shadows

Chris Mann as the Phantom and Katie Travis as Christine Daae in Phantom of the Opera at the Mirvish Theatre in Toronto.

Matthew Murphy

2 out of 4 stars

Title
The Phantom of the Opera
Genre
Musical
Directed by
Laurence Connor
Actors
Chris Mann, Katie Travis, Storm Lineberger
Music
Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics
Charles Hart
Book
Richard Stilgoe and Andrew Lloyd Webber
Company
Mirvish Productions
Venue
Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto
Runs Until
Saturday, January 23, 2016

"The Phantom of the Opera has come to town. And it's a dud."

Those were the first two sentences of Ray Conlogue's review in these pages of the first Canadian production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical. That production had its opening on Sept. 20, 1989 – and ran for a little over a decade at what was then known as the Pantages Theatre on Yonge Street.

Indeed, the local love for that Livent production was so huge – or, a cynic might argue, the marketing budget was so huge – that some people think it is still running even 15 years into this new millennium.

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Just two weeks ago, I kid you not, an Uber driver asked me: "Is The Phantom of the Opera still playing?"

I told her, as I tell you now: No – however, a new production of The Phantom of the Opera is in town for a couple of months at the Princess of Wales, presented by Mirvish Productions.

On Friday night, that touring production reimagined by director Laurence Connor opened with local critics positioned right underneath a pimped-out chandelier that, instead of swinging on stage, shoots flames and drops straight down. My companion let out a scream as shards of glass (rubber, it turned out), plopped on our heads.

Hint taken, The Globe and Mail won't declare the show a dud again. But, truth be told, The Phantom isn't one; it's at least as fascinating as it is flawed.

In writing off the show back in 1989, Conlogue – like many critical dissenters at the time – felt that the special effects were the main draw.

However, for The Phantom to have endured this long (it's been on Broadway non-stop since 1988), the musical's appeal has to extend beyond a falling chandelier and pyrotechnics – which even in Connor's rejigged production come off as more of a theme park's idea of impressive than genuinely thrilling theatrics.

To my mind, it is that the tone of the Phantom is radically unlike anything else currently popular in musical theatre. It offers emotional excess and expressionism in a time where stage romances are mostly cutesy rather than operatic – and politically correct psychology reigns.

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Lloyd Webber's show keeps on because nothing has ever come along to challenge it – and likely won't until Fifty Shades of Grey gets an irony-free stage adaptation.

The basic plot needs no reintroduction: The Phantom (Chris Mann), a mad, disfigured composer who wears a half mask, lives in a lair underneath the Opéra Populaire in Paris. He's obsessed with a naive soprano named Christine (Katie Travis) – who believes he is an angel sent to be her teacher by her late father.

After a rich suitor named Raoul (the wonderfully named Storm Lineberger) begins to court Christine, the Phantom captures the ingenue and then revs up his haunting of the opera house. He forces the new owners, Monsieurs Firmin and André (David Benoit, Edward Staudenmayer, both unremarkable) to stage his opera Don Juan Triumphant with Christine as the star.

Hal Prince, the original director of The Phantom of the Opera, called the musical an "atavistic show." Part of the reason why Connor's production is not as successful as Prince's original is that he misses that – and tries to tamp down the musical's capital-R romantic streak with a dose of realism. In his pursuit of that goal, as with his recent revised production of Les Misérables that passed through Toronto on its way to Broadway, Connor has cast younger leads.

Mann (who resumes the role of Phantom from Dec. 21 to Jan. 23) is a finalist from the NBC reality competition The Voice in his early 30s – and so the fatherly aspect of his character that appeals to Christine is missing. He seems more like a man-child than a mythic figure. Instead of looking to the young, Connor should have looked to Jung to understand Lloyd Webber's show and its interest in masks and personae.

Another problem with this tour is that the new set by Paul Brown, a rotating tube full of hidden compartments, is too technologically tricky for its own good.

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During the title song, the audience's attention is drawn to stairs emerging from the side of this shell, instead of watching the faces of Phantom and Christine as they descend it.

This is a crucial moment, plot-wise: Is Christine following the Phantom to his lair by her own volition, has she been hypnotized by him, or is he spiriting her away by force? All that's clear in Mann's and Travis's performances at this point is that they are trying to sing without falling off floating platforms.

Technology is not an excuse for the confusing acting in the trios – where wide-eyed Christine moves back and forth between Raoul and an non-threatening Phantom with no rhyme or reason. The singing from all three is solid through the show's nearly non-stop hits – The Music of the Night, Think of Me, All I Ask of You – but their motivations are hard to read.

In trying to flesh out these characters, instead of embracing them as the archetypes they are, Connor has only ended up making them all seem one-dimensional. The key is in the lyrics of the title song that we're distracted from here: "The Phantom of the Opera is there – inside your mind."

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