I've been a phan for the past 20 years, and in all that time, I'd always wanted to see the show on my birthday. Unfortunately, circumstances never allowed me to, but this year – since I was already hard at work on the show's 5th Anniversary gift and needed to do some resource photography around the Venetian – I had the perfect opportunity to make a working birthday vacation of it. A long weekend in a 5-star luxury suite overlooking the Strip with in-suite breakfasts and to top it all off, a chandelier seat for my birthday. What could be better than that? Well, buying a ticket for another performance and getting the last front row seat available which happened to be my favorite seat, that's what! Clearly, someone upstairs must have been looking out for me! I wound up seeing the show 3 times over 2 days and by popular demand, I'll be reviewing the April 30th performances, consolidated from both early and late shows.
This was my first time seeing Joan Sobel as Carlotta. I'm curious to know why PLV has had a rotating cast of Carlottas ever since the two original actresses, Jeffries-Mattox and Batman left the show; I guess I'll have to ask that sometime. Anyway, suffice it to say that Joan's overall performance was very restrained. It's unclear to me whether it was to go for a more realistic approach or not since some of the histrionics were there, just dialed back to a 2 or 3. Oh, and the way her lips moved as she held that note in "trophy" at the top of the show reminded me of this:
I'll comment more on her performance as the review progresses. And just a general note, but during the April 29th performance, I noticed that the orchestra was drowning out the actors quite a bit throughout the show. Happily, it wasn't as bad for the Saturday shows, but it was still apparent in a few scenes. And since this is a review of the Saturday shows and not the Friday show, I won't mention the older gentleman who was sitting to my left Friday night who was tracking any actress with the most... womanly features... in each scene with his eyes. And one last general comment. For those of you phans who sit in the first few rows of the golden circle, it is your duty to cue the surrounding audience members as to when it's time to turn around to see something taking place behind them. You'd be surprised how many people come to the show and stare at nothing but the stage like it's a giant television or movie screen. It is also your duty to keep applauding between the end of the show and curtain call when attending a night with a low-energy audience. I've been to a few of those late shows on Saturdays when the applause almost died out completely before the cast came out to take their bows and that's just plain rude.
Getting back to Hannibal, Lawson Skala was definitely playing up the counting of the seats and boxes upon his entrance, emphasizing his character's focus on business and profit. I also noticed Brianne's Meg sizing him up from behind which brought to mind a disturbing scene from that laughably horrific "Unmasqued" book involving Firmin, Madame Giry, and a set piece from Gounod's Faust. Upon reflection later that night, it also brought the image of a hook and jazz hands to mind, but I won't bother going into why. Bruce Ewing's Reyer was suitably annoyed at the managers' constant interruptions and requests while he was obviously trying to get the cast through the rehearsal – audibly huffing as he spoke to the conductor. I usually don't pay much attention to the Reyer character, but I really enjoy what Bruce brings to the part. I also liked how Larry Wayne Morbitt looked surprised and a bit alarmed at the announcement that Lefevre was retiring and how Joan's Carlotta seemed to take it in stride and immediately focus herself on her new bosses. In fact, she sang the entire TOM piece while looking at John Leslie Wolfe's Andre. Very nice.
Think of Me:
Having spoken with her earlier that day, I knew that it was Kristi Holden's first night back after recovering from a cold/flu, but she sounded quite good, if a bit reserved (not sure if that was due to her not being quite at 100% yet, or a sound issue, but I don't think the audience noticed).
Angel of Music/The Mirror:
Lovely scene and one of my favorite melodies. Brianne's acting is always excellent, and as I've said many times before, her vocals just get better and better with each performance. I'll take a time out to mention the Phantom's entrance. What I always loved about the OLC (particularly when listening to it in surround sound) is how Crawford's vocals are manipulated, booming and echoing from all around you and slowly converging behind the mirror when he finally reveals himself to Christine. In all the live performances I've seen, I've never heard that effect and have always found the live version disappointing in that regard. To me, it gives an audible expression of the Phantom's supernatural ability. Subtle manipulation of the audio could give a sense of when the Phantom uses his voice to control Christine versus when he's merely speaking as a normal man. But that's just my opinion. Now, back to the show.
Phantom of the Opera:
There's definitely a difference watching this scene from the front row versus further back. For one, you can see the candles rise out of the mist if you're sitting several rows back and you'd be surprised how that one element contributes to the overall feel of the scene after going without it for several performances. I also finally placed which previous Phantom Anthony Crivello reminds me of: Robert Guillaume. It's especially evident in the title song in how Anthony sings it in an extremely sharp, forceful manner, almost shouty. It fits his interpretation of the character, but for those who are accustomed to a more romanticized version, it might take some getting used to. I also noticed that Kristi is probably the most physical of any actress I've seen during the vocalizing at the end of the song – I wouldn't quite say "writhing," but definitely not just standing there like a statue singing the notes.
Music of the Night:
I'll take the opportunity here to talk more about Anthony's Phantom since I feel I've glossed over it in many of my previous reviews. His take on the character has definitely evolved in the five years since the show opened. His vocals give it an "edginess" (purely from the slight gravelly quality it has) that's always been there, but in many respects, practically everything else has changed to greater or lesser degree. Originally, Anthony had a very Svengali-like take on the role, the character's age in comparison to the female lead and his dominating personality readily apparent. This current interpretation (elements of which have been around since at least 2009) is tempered with a slight vanity – he's constantly adjusting his cuffs and jacket to present an immaculate appearance. He's also a very enthusiastic artist, exemplified in how animated he is when composing his music. And he gets seriously animated. Like, one degree shy of spiking a football and doing and end zone dance onstage. Other mannerisms have also come into play – the classic Phantom gesticulations. Every actor to play the part does them to some degree, and Anthony's are subdued and tend to revolve around flexing at either the elbows, wrists, or index and middle fingers, the last coupled together for his signature 360-rotate-at-the-wrist-to-double-finger point-upwards gesture I call the "Sadistic Proctologist." During this scene, he also has a tendency to break the line of vision between himself and Christine at certain points. I take it that some of this is due to having to see the conductor for cues, but when Christine isn't at the center of the Phantom's focus, I lose the sense of intense connection between the two if the actor looks off into the auditorium somewhere to sing a line. Again, just me playing director, feel free to ignore. This is not to say that I don't still enjoy Anthony's Phantom, or as I affectionately call him, Slappy!Phantom. Seriously, he's constantly slapping things. He slaps the armrest during the Final Lair; he slaps the ring in the final moments of the show. Heck, depending on the Christine, he's probably slapping something behind the mirror, too. All that being said, I still enjoy Anthony in the role, and I'll go into the one specific thing that cements that feeling later on.
Stranger than You Dreamt It:
This scene could probably use a little work since Anthony doesn't come off as surprised by the unmasking and seems a little too in control as he chases Christine around the lair. Personally, I prefer a Phantom that's a little unhinged by this violation of trust and loss of dignity – a taste of the explosive, violent side of his personality so vividly depicted in the original book – that reminds the audience that this man isn't exactly boyfriend material unless he was on an episode of COPS. But there is a nice moment at the end when Christine returns his mask where he pauses in surprise at her gesture and the immediate change in his demeanor when he puts it back on.
Again Joan underplays her character in this scene. You'd expect the prima donna of the opera to be furious that a patron (even a big one, like Raoul) would demand that her understudy take her place, but she came across as more perturbed than anything else. The septet sounded as fantastic as always and Brianne's curious/suspicious silent reactions aided in underscoring the lines the various characters were saying, helping move the story along.
Kristi earned an honorary place in the next big rap video for her Serafimo!@ss volcano and despite her illness she still managed to work it at warp speed (did she take classes or something?) On another note, this marked the first time I'd noticed Marc Cedric Smith's Don Attilio raise his cane to strike Serafimo and the Countess while they're getting all hot and heavy to the bed. I've seen Attilio's hobble up and wave their fist angrily, but I'd never seen it go this far before. Moving back to Joan, she redeems herself by croaking instead of saying the word "ribbit," as well as throwing Christine back onto the bed rather than forcibly dragging her back. It wasn't as hilarious as when Patricia Hurd did it to Lisa Vroman while she screamed her line at the top of her lungs during closing night of the San Francisco run, but it was still a nice change of pace from her rather low-key Carlotta. And in a "Chicken Little" moment that I found deprives many of the audience in the front rows from seeing an "only in Vegas" stunt, while they turn around and look at the chandelier the first two times when it merely shakes and makes a little noise (but nothing more comes of it), they rarely turn around the third and final time when the Phantom is literally hanging from it – even if the cast and people like me try to cue them that something big's going on behind them this time.
Also of amusement was the Confidante and fops saying, in character and in unison, "Christine Daaé! OooooooOOOOOOooh!!!!!" as they shuffled offstage after Firmin announced the cast change.
All I Ask of You/Reprise:
There were a few interesting moments regarding the rooftop duet during this trip. First off, lovely song, and Andrew Ragone was definitely channeling that heartfelt, noble warmth of Barton's Raoul. Kristi and Andrew sold the emotions of the song well, because when I was sitting under the chandelier, I spied out of the corner of my eye a young couple in the row in front of me snuggling in a very sweet manner. In fact, during the Friday night show, the audience was so receptive that they applauded at the end of the song, something I rarely have seen happen in the twenty-plus times I've seen the show, which forced Kristi and Andrew to prolong the final kiss before she could go on to her next line.
On a side note, I mentioned this on one of my previous reviews, but "order your fine horses now" always makes me think Christine's endorsing male condoms (probably because I'd been listening to Prince's "Little Red Corvette" earlier). And since I've been working on a lot of Phantom-related parody advertisements, here's one I threw together to illustrate my point:
But back to the review.
There was applause again as Raoul and Christine left the roof (always happy to hear some sort of reaction to the show's big love duet) while the Angel descended further. Anthony's delivery didn't feel very emotional until the end – like the character is holding back his heartbreak at hearing Christine declare her love for Raoul (Suck it E/C shippers! She loves the nice guy!) – but recently it's been TOO subdued. His has never been an overly weepy Phantom in this moment – but I think it has a lot to do with his "softer" current interpretation and the diminishment thereof of a significant contrast to his lack of control in this situation. He also does a very slow slappy thing here with his arm, but brings back the angry for the end of the reprise. He's very good with the angry.
Oh, hip swish, how I adore thee!
Of lesser importance, but still of interest, was the fact that Mandarin Man hides Raoul and Christine's entrance into the scene by obscuring them with his cloak as they enter from the wings and take their place center stage behind the crowd. I could have sworn other productions just have them come in from the opposite side of the stage so it surprised me that I hadn't noticed this before. Damn hip swish.
Also worthy of mention was Red Death's entrance when he stops to frighten the patrons around him on the staircase. The tall-hatted fellow who obscures his entrance at the top of the stairs clutched his chest and looked like he was going to have a heart attack when Red Death rounded back to scare him. Nice! And while I'm on the subject of Red Death, I think it would have been infinitely easier to time his steps and the music if the production had installed one of these staircases instead:
Giry's Confession/Notes II/Twisted Every Way:
Fake Out #2 – whenever Raoul points out into the auditorium as he shouts, "The disaster will be YOURS!", it never fails to make a few people in the audience turn around to try to see what he's pointing at.
Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again/Wandering Child:
Nothing to really say here. Kristi did great and I still don't like Zombie!Christine arms.
Oh, wait. To expand upon my comments earlier about manipulating the Phantom's voice in the Mirror scene, here's another great opportunity to use sound to convey the Phantom's hypnotic voice and underscore how he can control Christine with it. Like in the OLC, starting it off with that far-off, ghostly quality that seems to surround you and have it slowly coalesce onstage as the Phantom appears atop the mausoleum (which would require that he delay his entrance, I know), but still retain that echoey essence to the sound even as you see him would audibly emphasize that power he has and stand in contrast to his natural voice for the remainder of his lines once Raoul has snapped Christine out of her trance. Again, don't mind me. I'm just Monday-morning quarterbacking 21-time Tony Award-winner Hal Prince here.
Before the Premiere:
Got a good look at the marksman's gun. Crap, I used a different model in my project. I hate it when my details are inaccurate.
DJT/Point of No Return:
Is Mr. Tasseled-Futon-Smurf Hat guy a swing costume? Because that's the first time I've ever seen the character onstage. Also, as a testament to the power of PoNR, even the woefully truncated Vegas version had couples making out in their seats. Well, actually it was just that same couple from AIAoY earlier that night. And I think they were making out during the Manager's scene too, so maybe they just needed a room. Or a fire hose to be turned on them.
Then the chandelier came crashing down. Did I mention that I brought my mother to see the Vegas version for the first time and bought chandelier seats specifically for that purpose? Or all that I said to her was how the chandelier crash is a *little* different in this version? Oops.
Anthony was still bringing the angry as he dragged Christine into the lair and threw her roughly to the floor, then turned around and stared up at the top of the portcullis breathing raggedly much like how Howard McGillin did the scene when I saw him on Broadway a few years ago. Kristi had a lot of strength in her performance throughout the scene which I enjoy because this is really the turning point for her character where she finally stands up for herself and stops letting herself be pushed around.
Okay, remember how I said there was one specific thing that really locks Crivello in as a favorite Phantom of mine? Well, it's in how he delivers these lines:
a mother's fear
He sings them in such a mournful, pitying way that is in extreme contrast to the rest of his portrayal (even the current, softer version) that really feels like a glimpse into the heart of this lonely, rejected man behind the all-powerful, always in control façade of the Phantom. I don't think I've seen another Phantom in the show that has conveyed that amount of anguish in those brief lines.
This also marked the first time I saw how the levitating spiked cage effect works. Very cool. You'd never notice it if you weren't looking for it. As a result, I paid a lot of attention to Andrew during this scene to see how he approached it since he's really restricted in movement, even moreso than punjabbed Raoul in the original version. He was at turns frustrated and desperate and turned away during the second kiss, his body language conveying his feeling of despair and defeat.
The rest of the show went off without a hitch and the technically enhanced final line by Anthony is still in there. A nice effect to end the show on, but a bit cheesy since it is so obviously enhanced. Brianne then did her showcase spokesmodel thing with the mask and finis.
"But wait!" you say. "What's all this about the Phantom farting? Was it all a ruse to get us to read another long-winded and ultimately pointless review of yours?" Well, not quite. During curtain call, when the rest of the cast has already taken their bows and turn around pretending to wonder where the lead actor is, the spark effect that masks Anthony's entrance from beneath the stage ignited. But this time, it was accompanied by a LOUD high-pitched squeak that sounds a lot like me after I've eaten Mexican food. That's it; nothing more to it. Kinda anti-climactic, huh? Hope it was worth the price of admission!