Review: Fresh coat of paint for SHNSF’s ‘Phantom’ features hits, misses

The Phantom (Chris Mann) reveals himself to Christine (Katie Travis) in Andrew Lloyd Webber's "The Phantom of the Opera," running at the Orpheum Theatre through Oct. 4th. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)
The Phantom (Chris Mann) reveals himself to Christine (Katie Travis) in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “The Phantom of the Opera,” running at the Orpheum Theatre through Oct. 4th. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

I have a pretty solid history with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s pièce de résistance “The Phantom of the Opera.” While it has never been an all-time favorite, it has always been for me an enjoyable dazzler, with plenty of spectacle that does not necessarily mean just the chandelier. Fire, explosions, and falling through the stage are signatures of the story featuring the strange young man and his music of the night.

The new production that is currently running in San Francisco as part of SHNSF’s season features all the things that makes the original so fun. This production gets a fresh coat of paint, featuring an all-new reinvented set and a whole new commitment to effects that feel a bit more modern. Fire in the original production has now been replaced with hella more fire.

The show has a lot of things that will feel familiar to those who have centered their theatrical Broadway experience on the show. The appearance of Phantom through the mirror, the impeccable sound design by Mick Potter and the delicious costumes of Maria Bjornson.

The issue with this production is not the music, which is intact. Nor is it the principal performers, who sing admirably with force and purpose.

Where this production is somewhat confounding is in its reinvented set design, giving the characters a new playground that they didn’t always fit within the world of the score.

Gone is the more mysterious underground lair that features the Phantom’s huge organ, and in its place is his sweet bachelor pad that has all the charm of an upper west side apartment. There are also some new costume touches, no more cool hat, and no more crazy Red Death costume with the ingenious choppers that moved while he talked. A more conservative mask took over.

The set certainly adds a bit more magic and mystery to the proceedings. Steps that magically appear and disappear lead to a sense of controlled isolation for the Phantom. A lot of the set is contained by something that reminds me of a kind of large scaled playhouse that opens and closes by hinges.

While I found Chris Mann’s performance full of rangy and strong lyrics, he was not always assisted by moments which allowed him to maximize the emotion of the piece. Take the moment during “All I Ask of You,” when it is revealed he had been listening to the love revelations by Christine and Raoul. The old staging had the Phantom sitting on an angel that was locked onto the top of the proscenium. This staging had him hiding behind a big sculpture. I’ve always found this moment one of the most painful, a horrid discovery for the deformed man seeking love. But because the staging cuts off half the audience, this moment did little to strengthen that arc. It also flattens the inevitable handling of the chandelier, which is motivated by that moment.

Mann was joined with some vocal strength by Katie Travis, who carries the weight of Christine Daae with aplomb. And while Storm Lineberger handled his vocals exceedingly well, it was a bit hard to really get behind Raoul, who comes across as a smarmy douchebag. I mean, the Phantom is right. Raoul liked her when he heard her sing, and he rides his entitlements to a marriage proposal. His approach in “All I Ask of You” seemed more like, “Dammit, I demand that you say you love me every waking moment.”

While it may seem that I was not all that enthralled with the show, I would say quite the opposite. I have seen many productions of “Phantom,” with solid performers in the principal roles – Davis Gaines, Lisa Vroman, Franc D’Ambrosio, Howard McGillin and Hugh Panaro, to name a few. While there have been things in this production that might have strayed away from that Broadway comfort food that is the 28-year-old “Phantom,” there is much to like about this fresh take. David Foley’s Firmin and Edward Staudenmayer’s Andre are joyous takes on the bumbling, money-grubbing theatre producers. Jacquelynne Fontaine was full of dazzling vocal tricks as the divalicious prima donna Carlotta. And the portly Piangi, played by Frank Viveros, provides plenty of much needed humor in the midst of the darkness and grit.

“Phantom” has a special place in Bay Area theatre lore, and having it back in the City feels right. And while this production might be a bit jarring for longtime “phans” of the show, so much of it still feels familiar. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

SHNSF presents “The Phantom of the Opera”
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics by Charles Hart
Additions from Richard Stilgoe
The Word: While some of the staging takes away from the emotions of the piece, the music stays intact, and lots of lovely vocals help strengthen the production.
Stars: 4 out of 5
Through Oct. 4th
The Orpheum Theatre
1192 Market St., San Francisco, CA
Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes with a 15-minute intermission
Tickets range from $45 – $210
For tickets, call (888) 746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com

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