Phantom: The Las Vegas Spectacular Crivello/Combs (alt)/Ragone – 19 October 2011: The Tale of Two Sarahs Edition (or: "Apple!PoNR Makes a Comeback")


My sister and one of her best friends from Virginia recently had their birthdays and since they wanted to celebrate together, I made all the arrangements for a brief trip to Las Vegas with rooms at the Venetian, a performance of "Ka" and seats under the chandelier for "Phantom." My sister hadn't seen the show since the San Francisco production closed in 1999, so I thought chandelier seats would be the best way to introduce her to the Las Vegas production.


At the same time, it would allow me to get a second opportunity to see Sarah Elizabeth Combs in the role of Christine. I first saw her when she subbed for regular Christine alternate Kristen Hertzenberg last year. Circumstances were the same this time: I had planned to see Hertzenberg (whom I'd only seen once before), and would be seeing Combs instead. Which isn't a bad thing by far, don't get me wrong. And this time I knew well in advance and since I don't think I gave Combs a fair shake in my first review because I was caught off-guard by the cast change, I was looking forward to focusing on her interpretation of Christine this time around since I'd been hearing good things about her in the interim. And this time, I was determined not to let her rather supervillainess-esque arched eyebrows frighten me away from my duty.


The cast change board in the lobby also indicated that we'd be seeing Sarah Ann Lewis as Mme Giry. I'd never seen a Vegas Giry understudy, so I was curious as to what Lewis would bring to the party.


I should also note that as the Las Vegas cast has settled in terms of cast changes and characterizations over the past few years, this review will center mostly on the new elements (such as Combs and Lewis) and may not go into much depth in regards to the other actors whose performances I've discussed at length in previous reviews.


While I arranged for my sister and her friend to sit beneath the chandelier (with express instructions to look at the chandelier whenever anyone mentioned it or pointed at it), I sat up front to fully observe all the nuances of the performances. I didn't get my preferred seat again this time (I got the next seat over to the right instead), but to my right was a man and his partner who were fans of the show but had never seen the Las Vegas production (he was surprised when I told him that the Vegas version was cut down to 95 minutes after he expressed confusion that the scene list did not include a few scenes he remembered nor did it have an intermission) and to my left was a little old lady (in MY seat), her husband, and another elderly gentleman. It appeared to be their first time seeing the show too, and I kindly informed her that they might have to turn around a few times during the show to see what's going on behind them. Like I said, very sweet old lady. I think I might have felt really bad punching her in the face to get my favorite seat back.


Now back to our regularly scheduled review…


Prologue -I finally heard an audience member bid on one of the auction items, in this case, the elderly man sitting next to the octogenarian who stole my seat. Although he did it under his breath, I could hear him clearly, and he was kinda cheap too. One franc for the monkey music box? Didn't you hear the extremely pale fellow in the top hat? Bidding started at twenty francs.


Hannibal - While not on the cast change board, we also had Scott Watanabe as Lefevre, whose exit towards the end of the scene had a very nice, "Oooookay, I'm outta here!" quality to it. Contrary to what my esteemed colleague phantom10906 observed the previous week, Lawson Skala had a beard when I saw him, so I guess the change was temporary. Speaking of, Brianne Kelly Morgan was playing up the impish side of Meg Giry when she ran back to hide giggling behind another ballerina after Firmin caught her sidling up towards him. Another nice moment with Brianne came after she was scolded by Lefevre for her second outburst. Kneeling next to her, Sarah Elizabeth Combs' Christine puts her hand on Meg's shoulder reassuringly, positioning this friendship as one of an older Christine and a younger Meg, I felt. This scene also gave me a first look at Sarah Ann Lewis' Mme Giry, who had a passing resemblance to Brianne. She was a hot, young Giry. In fact, if she took her hair down out of that bun, she'd probably look like this:


Young Giry


Now let's talk about Sarah Combs. First thing I noticed was that she was wearing her regular Hannibal slave girl costume and not a Christine version. The thought never occurred to me that while as understudy she has the wedding dress, she may not necessarily have ALL the other Christine costumes as well. She played the distracted, "head in the clouds" part well while Carlotta was performing her ToM for the managers, but I felt her reaction to Reyer snapping the score closed in her face (she looked down at the book, then when it was snapped shut, looked up straight ahead with a wide eyed "uh-oh" expression) was a little bit much. Thankfully, this would not prove to exemplify her performance for the rest of the show. In fact, she would prove to bring little character moments I'd never seen before into play in the very next scene.


Think of Me - In the transition from the rehearsal to the gala performance, Combs's Christine smiled warmly at Meg just before the little group surrounding her stepped away – a very nice touch to emphasize the friendship between the two. Combs' voice held a healthy vibrato and mature sound, sort of reminding me of a better sounding Dale Kristen without the chipmunk quality. She also really launched the scarf up into the air at the end of cadenza. I'm surprised it didn't get caught in the flies.


Angel of Music/The Mirror - While other Christines seem subdued in the reverse tabs scene, Combs was practically beaming and giddy before the curtains parted for her bow – very much the way I'd expect a young chorus girl who just made a spectacular debut would act. Lewis continued the typical Vegas Mme Giry here, emphasizing the "He will be pleased" but not playing up the comic opportunity of "You were a disgrace!" with the ballerinas.


You could very much feel the friendship between Christine and Meg in this scene through the interaction of Sarah and Brianne since they played off each other very well.


Phantom of the Opera - Strangely, I thought Sarah's title track (the first verse, at least) didn't sound clearly annunciated and thus didn't project the acting I'm used to hearing in that part of the song. But otherwise it was well sung and acted physically by both Combs and Crivello. There was quite a bit of fog, however. Poured right offstage and straight into our faces in the front row. The elderly husband actually had to get up during all the scenes that had the fog and stand off to one side until it settled. I did like Sarah's vocalizations at the end. She was more animated that most Christines I've seen, tilting her head this way and that, her arms raised slightly at her sides, etc. It made for a good change of pace.


Music of the Night - It can be said that Combs took the "Be Seduced" tagline approach to the scene, with her parted lips and heavy-lidded expressions. There was a bit of the "push/pull" tension – just enough to elevate the portrayal beyond the "hypno!Christine" that was the original blueprint. Curiously (and I don't know if it was intentional or not), but as Combs followed Crivello around to the portcullis, she looked off into the wings where Christine and Raoul would later make their escape at the end of the Final Lair. I'd never seen any Christines do that before, so I suppose that's why it stood out for me. She also did the full runaway after the… "crotch brush"… that Gillian Lynne referred to in a BBC special on the show. Vegas Christines don't often do the full run if I recall, correctly, but I enjoy how it works in terms of physical energy along with the rising emotional energy in the song at that moment (and if the edge of the dressing gown catches the air just so, you get a tasty glimpse of leg. It didn't happen here, but I'm just saying it's a distinct possibility.)


Crivello's Phantom was touch and go throughout the show. His 2-finger "J" sweep hand gesture I referred to in an earlier review as the "Sadistic Proctologist" was underplayed this time (much to my relief), but his money notes weren't there – "soar" didn't register for me in the moment and his final note was barely audible. At the same time, as he led Christine to the broken mirror he touched a finger gently under her chin mirroring the same gesture Red Death would do in "Why So Silent." He also sold the alarm the Phantom is feeling when Christine dropped like a rock to the floor. So like I said, he as touch and go.


Stranger than You Dreamt It - I liked the fact that Combs curled up in a ball after she fell, but she did it pretty early on rather than saving it as a physical reaction to the Phantom shouting, "Now you cannot ever be free!" But later she held her hand out as the Phantom crawled towards her as if to say, "Stay back!" This same silhouette that conveyed extreme terror would then turn into one of compassion when she held the mask out to him. Same pose, two completely different feelings.


Notes/Prima Donna - I've said it before, but I'll say it again: I really love how the Vegas actors' voices blend together in this scene. PD tends to be the slow point in the show for me, but the quality of singing and acting by all the performers in the Las Vegas production maintains my interest as much as any other scene in the show.


Also of note was Sarah Lewis' Mme Giry, particularly during the point when Raoul asks her about the Phantom's notes. Hen she turns away from him only to come face to face with meg, the slightly wide-eyed expression seemed to say, "Not you too!", giving the impression that she was being "hounded out by everyone" so to speak. And Brianne's expression as she turned away from Giry looked as if she felt betrayed that her mother was keeping secrets from her.


Il Muto - Not all that much to say here except that the big floppy hat nearly obscured Combs' face and her Serafimo ass volcano was pretty good. A few more rap video screenings and she just might get there.


And Lackey's casual untying of the rope to hang Buquet (as the Phantom double in the scene) is so nonchalant it really conveys the callous/dangerous nature of the title character.


All I Ask of You/Reprise - In "Why have You Brought Us Here", Combs really showcased Christine emotionally overwhelmed and alarmed at the course of events, placing a palm to her temple as if trying to get the Phantom's voice in her mind under control. This would be a signature action for her as she would do it a few more times during the show.


And what a breath of fresh air Andrew Ragone was after seeing the 25th Anniversary show. Warm, concerned, yet comforting, he was so much the anti-Hadley Fraser that if they were ever to collide, they would annihilate each other in an explosion 10 billion times more powerful than a hydrogen explosion. That's a fact. Look it up.


The kisses were 100% Raoul, putting Combs' Christine in the passive position and maintaining the chaste, pure, innocent quality of the character intact (although I do miss a Christine who lunges into the second kiss much to Raoul's surprise. Christines who do that are statistically more likely to get their freak on during PoNR).


Crivello's Angel Reprise started a bit abruptly when he stood up more quickly than usual instead of going for the slow reveal. It was a good performance, though, very mournful and heartfelt. I also finally noticed the mic attached to the underside of the brim. Go me!


Masquerade - Another excellent example of how great the Las Vegas cast sounds when singing together. Having them all gather on the staircase and sing the final chorus, I get a thrill akin to listening to Crawford, Vroman, or watching really good Apple!PoNR. And as I also mentioned in a previous review: Marisa Paull is the most awesome Monkey Girl evah.


Also of note in this scene were Combs really strongly conveying Christine's concern about anyone learning about the secret engagement and how Red Death #2's codpiece jiggled like an empty coin purse as he ran down the stairs.


Giry's Confession/Notes II/Twisted Every Way - Easily the most amusing/terrifying moment in the show was this scene wherein Sarah Lewis apparently couldn't find the edge of the curtain in order to pass through it and start the scene. It was second after awkward second of the curtain being punched here and there, Raoul finally saying, "Madame Giry! Madame Giry!", yet more punching of the curtain to the point that I expected her to crawl out from underneath it. But she ultimately did find the curtain edge and the scene progressed with only the slightest of stretching out of the opening of the scene.


I don't think I've ever mentioned this before, but the one thing I like about the truncated Notes 2 is that Andre's dialogue is kept to a minimum because I wouldn't be able to take anything he said seriously while he's wearing the skeletard.


Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again/Wandering Child - Brilliant scene, wonderfully acted by Combs. I'm sure other actresses have held the scarf the same way, but in this instance it felt to me like Combs was holding it (and kissing it) like it was a rosary. Not sure why I thought that, but I did, and I felt it brought something unique and touching to the scene and to the character.


In addition, when Christine heard the Phantom's voice in "Wandering Child," Combs played her response so that you could really see the struggle she was having; the push/pull; I-want-to-but-I-can't conflict she finds herself between the comfort she finds in her Angel and the anxiety she feels in the presence of the Phantom until she finally succumbs.


And it turns out that if you take zombie!Christine (or sleepwalking!Christine, if you're feeling more charitable) and rotate her wrists 90 degrees, she becomes embrace me!Christine which plays a whole lot better in my opinion.


Before the Premiere - Two things of note in this scene: 1) As the Marksman stood next to him, the conductor plugged his own ear with his finger, and 2) Scott Watanabe played the Chief Fire Officer with the most authority I've ever seen in the character, lending him a sense of authenticity.


DJT/Point of No Return - Regarding Don Juan's motley crew, I enjoyed how Lackey's innkeeper (when the woman sitting on his lap got up and walked off) stretched out his arm to say, "Hey! And then waved dismissively ("ah, whatever ho…") and continued his cajoling.


And comes the part we (and by "we" I mean "me") have been waiting for. phantom10906 claimed that Combs would leave me in a puddle of goo on the floor. Well that's big talk, buddy. Would she be an innocent virgin to be sacrificed on Don Juan's four-post altar of carnal conquests or would she slut it up and rival Don Juan's prurient perversions? Let's find out!



The Artist Formerly as Raphael: Good evening ladies and gentlemen and welcome to the 25th Annual Granny Smith Apple!PoNR Competition here in swingin' Las Vegas. I'm The Artist Formerly Known as Raphael and with me is my co-host Butch Manley, president of the Christine Daaé Testosterone Brigade. Hi Butch.


Butch Manley: Hiya TAFKaR. Good to be here, buddy.


TAFKaR: Nice having you here. And I'm glad to see that rash has finally cleared up.

We've got a great show for you today folks, so without further ado –


BM: I've got my lotion, so let's get this party started!


TAFKaR: You are a sick man, Butch.


BM: So my parole officer keeps telling me, TAFKaR. Blah, blah, blah.


TAFKaR: Moving on, tonight we have understudy Sarah Combs. She's a relative newcomer to the sport, having only recently started covering the Christine alternate role on a regular basis. And here she is now, entering the octagon –


BM: Mmm, nice gams.


TAFKaR: Security on stand-by, please.


BM: What did I say?


TAFKaR: A pretty plain entrance and walk to the table. A rather disappointing start.


BM: Very vanilla, TAFKaR.


TAFKaR: Her skirt looks a little short. I think I caught a glimpse of calf, so points for that. But OH! Rookie mistake with the vigorous rubbing of the apple on her collar. Gonna have to deduct from her score for that one.


BM: Snore!


TAFKaR: She's recovered a bit, rubbing the apple slowly against her inner thigh. Pretty standard stuff so far, nothing that we haven't seen by many competitors before her.


BM: I'm wilting!


TAFKaR: Hold on, the sound of the curtains closing has stopped her in her tracks. The apple's still against her inner thigh and not moving. Don Juan's starting to sing and the apple's on the move again. Wait, Combs is bringing it very slowly up the rest of her thigh, and letting it linger at the entrance of her Mine of Moria…


BM: You have my attention.


TAFKaR: She's bringing it up her stomach, ever so slowly inching her way between her Two Towers and along her throat…


BM: Now we're talking. Where'd I put that lotion?


TAFKaR: … She's breathing on the apple now as she holds it just before her lips, polishing it with her other palm over and over in slow circles as Don Juan is making the turn around the table. Combs is definitely getting points for originality in presentation, I can tell you that, folks.


BM: And now a bench lean. You don't see many of those anymore, TAFKaR. Mighty fine, mighty fine.


TAFKaR: She's bringing the apple back into play now, running it firmly down her right breast with a smooth transfer to her other hand to hold out for a bite. Don Juan has it now and is presenting Combs with the goblet. She's holding it to her chest and rotating her torso from her hips like she's some co-ed at a bar swirling a tequila shot using nothing but her cleavage…


BM: *gurgle*


TAFKaR: Smooth switch-off the bench. And would you look at that windup to grab Don Juan's back! Not since Pete Townshend's windmill power chords have I seen such telegraphing of that choreography, Butch. If that guy had been standing up, that would have been the Rolls Royce of double-handed gooses.


A nice amount of surprise as she feels the mask and – yes – excellent struggling to break free of his grip as she's dragged back to center stage. Very awkward, very believable. I like her reaction to the Phantom's AIAoY reprise, the dread that she knows where this line of thought is going, all the way to the point where he shoves his ring on her finger. That sells her yanking his mask and wig off, making it purely intentional.


Okay, that was Sarah Combs, everybody! After a slightly rocky start, she managed to take the reins and ride that apple to an impressive final score. Not too bad for a newcomer, not bad at all. What are your thoughts, Butch?




Okay, folks, it looks like Butch is well into the refractory period so we're going to wrap it up here. Our thanks to our sponsors Fuji and Johnny Appleseed, congratulations to our competitors and a special thanks to all the fans out there. Have a great night everyone and we'll see you next time!



Final Lair - Vegas Christines tend to be rather feisty when it comes to the Final Lair, and I think that's a good thing. Combs was at about a category 8, spitting her words at the Phantom but would still display some fear whenever he invaded her space. Nice combo, I thought. Unfortunately upon Raoul's arrival, when Combs threw the bouquet off into the wings, it bounced off the candelabra and wound up directly in the path Combs and Ragone would be taking as they ran out of the Lair at the end of the scene. So while there was plenty of intense emotions and drama going down, there was a part of my brain constantly saying, "Nobody slip on the bouquet! Don't let anyone slip on the bouquet! Can somebody PLEASE crawl out of the wings and get that bouquet before somebody trips and kills themselves taking a header into the candelabra?"


That aside, as I was saying, Combs proved to be a Christine with quite a backbone yet one that ran the gamut of emotions through the scene. Her, "Please Raoul, it's useless," was delivered with an angry, dismissive wave of her arm towards the Phantom; after Raoul was caught in the cage, her anger gave way to desperation as she pleaded to the Phantom to show mercy (seemingly on the verge of tears); and when it came time for her to make her decision, there was a distinctive change in her emotional state to pity/compassion as she began singing, "Pitiful creature of darkness…" She also milked her second exit more than previous Vegas Christines have in that after returning the ring, she started to leave, but paused as she reached the candelabra (DON'T TRIP ON THE BOUQUET!!!) and turned back with an expression that was a turmoil of emotions and appearing to want to say something, yet unable to form the words. It was probably no more than two or three seconds, then she ran off. It was sort of like Christine's exit in the 25th Anniversary performance but without f#cking up the ending from a conceptual point of view.


Then the sound of one hand slapping broke the beautiful mood.


So in summary, the Vegas cast continues to be in good form overall, Sarah Lewis made a good debut as Mme Giry, and Sarah Combs did a great job vocally and acting-wise, peppering her performance with wonderful little moments that defined her own, unique Christine.