Here’s an embarrassing confession from a performing arts writer: I had never seen a stage production of Phantom of the Opera, until last week when Cameron Mackintosh’s new production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic arrived at the Hobby Center. Of course, I know the story and hummed under my breath instinctively when those first dramatic notes of the title song reverberated through the opening night audience, but I had really no way to compare this new, elegant production with the beloved traditional version — one that’s still playing on Broadway.
Luckily, I had a chance to talk to both the Kasey RT Graham, the resident director who travels with the production, and Chris Mann, who plays the Phantom, to get a good idea of some of the changes Mackintosh and director Laurence Connor brought to this re-imaging. So if you’re a Phantom novice, like I was, or a Phantom fanatic, here’s a few treats and changes you can expect from our favorite masked opera stalker.
Theater that moves like film
The word of the day when talking to the resident director Graham about the scenic redesign of the show was “cinematic,” and only a few minutes into the performance, I saw exactly what Graham meant when he told me the scenes “moves much more like a movie.”
The scenery rotates on stage as circles within circles. Several stories high, curved walls that serve as the backstage of the opera house in other scenes open to reveal inner rooms, a cemetery and even the watery Paris underworld that the Phantom traverses by gondola.
“They just wanted to keep the story moving. They never wanted you to forget that this scene is attached to that scene. It’s not two separate things. This event leads to that event,” Graham said of Mackintosh and Connor’s initial vision and Paul Brown’s set design for the show.
While Graham might see the flowing of one scene into the other as mimicking movie’s quick scene changes, it also might reflect a bit of the Phantom’s backstory. The constant motion of the scenery resonates with the one almost-throw-away line late in the second act that the Phantom, besides being a genius composer, is also a magician and architect. He seems to make whole rooms and spaces appear and disappear at his will.
Minimal weird daddy issues
Chris Mann is younger than many of the famous Phantoms, like Michael Crawford, and is closer in age to Katie Travis who plays the Phantom’s obsession Christine. Mann, who has years of theater experience but is probably known best as Christina Aguilera’s finalist on the second season of The Voice, explained that the lack of a big age difference between Phantom and Christine does change the relationship between the two and his own take on the character.
“Because I am younger, we don’t have that sort of daddy Phantom issue in this production. I have no choice but to bring myself into it as much as I can, which is fun.”
And while he’s a big Phantom fan of previous depictions of the character, he told me: “I didn’t base my Phantom off of anything but what’s there in the text and what the music provides.”
As a viewer, I did find that replacing the older man/lovely ingénue dynamic in the show with a hot young Phantom who still sings about his power over Christine and then later blindfolds her and lays her on his giant bed set a kind of "50 Shades of Phantom" vibe to the whole evening.
A Phantom for multiple generations
Of the character’s relationships, Graham told me there was more of a focus on the “triangle between Christine, Raoul and Phantom.” And when I talked with a few audience members near me during intermission, some adults who had seen the show multiple times missed having a more mature Phantom (and the old crashing chandelier for that matter), but the teen girls in the row in front of me seemed thrilled to see an actual Voice star on stage in front of them.
Graham believes that the show’s focus on the relationships more than the supernatural qualities of the Phantom helps to bring this production into the 21st century and will help win over Phantom Phanatics who love the classic version.
“The attempt was to make it a little more palatable for a contemporary audience and a younger audience, so they [Mackintosh and Conner] wanted to focus on the psychology of the characters and make them feel like 21st century characters. I think the road is the perfect place to try that out on because you’re exposing it to people from all over the country,” Graham explained.
The Phantom of the Opera runs at the Hobby Center until November 29.