I'd really lucked out on this birthday trip to Las Vegas. Not only had I seen Benjamin Hale understudy as Raoul the previous night, but when my friends (Kathryn and Andy) and I picked up our tickets for this evening's performance, we saw on the call board outside the auditorium doors that we were going to be treated to Ian Jon Bourg as the Phantom that night!
That, and seeing my friend Andy (whose birthday actually fell on that day) jump up and down whilst squealing like a little schoolgirl when he saw Bourg's name made my weekend.
I was glad to be in our seats with plenty of time to spare after the fiasco the previous evening. And I was surprised to see Andrew Ragone onstage since we had his understudy the previous night and I had assumed he had been ill.
We were also blessed with a VERY enthusiastic group of high school kids in attendance (nothing like screaming, hooting and hollering kids to ramp up an audience's enthusiasm), and even if the chandelier dance isn't everyone's cup of tea, the synergy of the movement, the lighting and the thunderous music always gives me a thrill. I doubt watching PotO anywhere else will give me that overwhelming immersive experience again.
With an opening like that, the energy was high coming right out of the gate. Personally, I felt like the cast was delivering opening night or anniversary-event level performances. Principals and ensemble alike, everyone seemed on fire. Dance Captain Courtney Combs continued covering Marisa Paull's track that weekend, and of the usual suspects, Lawson Skala was highlighting and underlining the impatience in his Firmin this time around. I also liked the little character bits Larry Wayne Morbitt brought to his Piangi in how he adjusted his helmet and armor to appear more presentable to the new managers even if they didn't pay attention to him for even a second. He also really milked his exit and got a good laugh from the audience for it (throughout the show, it seemed the audience responded well to the humor).
Think of Me:
This was only the second time I'd had the opportunity to see Kristen Hertzenberg. It was a great treat to see her in the role again after her medical scare last year, and thankfully her voice still sounded as fantastic as before. Though classically trained, I've always felt there was something a little contemporary in her interpretation of the character. It's elusive, and I still can’t quite put my finger on what it is – something in how she sings the songs, or in her portrayal of the character – there's some element to her Christine that feels out of time with the period. And perhaps that's to her credit since Christine is supposed to be special and unique as to be singled out by the Phantom to give voice to his music.
Another great "miss-it-if-you're-not-paying-attention" moment was Madame Firmin covering her face with her fan as if embarrassed by Raoul's outburst of applause in the middle of Christine's aria.
Angel of Music:
Brianne Morgan and Hertzenberg's AoM duet was lovely and their voices play well off each other. In my opinion Morgan continues to be the best Meg in any production current or previous by giving her character personality and establishing relationships with the characters she interacts with – making the most of her time onstage rather than serving as a cipher for propelling the plot forward.
I enjoyed how Hertzenberg played Christine as torn about revealing the truth about her teacher to Meg. Typically Christines seem hesitant, not genuinely conflicted. And considering how much of a fuss she gives Raoul in the next scene about the Angel of Music, it makes sense that she might be as secretive about it with everyone else, too.
Little Lotte/The Mirror:
One of Hertzenberg's signature features of her Christine is the rapturous expression that comes over her whenever she hears the voice of the Angel of Music. The devotion in that look establishes the relationship between heavenly teacher and earthly student and that carried over from the previous scene. As for her other leading man, Hertzenberg and Ragone have great chemistry in this scene (actually, Ragone has had great chemistry with every Christine I've seen him play opposite), so the soon-to-be blossoming romance between the two is nicely set up here.
Phantom of the Opera:
This was my first time seeing Ian Jon Bourg live and I was coming in with high expectations based on what I'd heard from other phans. Bourg had very imposing presence – tall, large man, similar to a Brad Little or John Owen-Jones at a glance, but a bit lankier. But I do have to admit that his voice surprised me. Having a couple of his German-language PotO singles from iTunes, I had expected his voice to be more of a naturally deeper register than it turned out to be. Not to say that I didn't like it, just that I was taken by surprise. He also wins the prize for most realistic poling of the boat across the lake. He even gestured for the boat to move off into position after disembarking, an extra bit of business I don’t often see.
Music of the Night:
Bourg's Phantom is a maestro of music. Another old-school Phantom, he gestured a great deal with his hands, but it was slightly different than the usual flourishes you see. In this case, it felt to me like he was a conductor – the movements more contained, drawing out the music permeating the air and really savoring the lyrics (the show in general felt like it was taking its time and not trying to pack as much as it could into its 95-minute running time). And he also seemed obsessed with Christine's hair. He was constantly running his hands around her head that I thought any second he was going to pull out some banana clips and a can of Aquanet. The amount of time he did spend lingering in her immediate vicinity did enhance the intimacy of the scene, though.
In this scene, Hertzenberg's Christine walked the line between enraptured and self-aware, never completely either extreme. There was a cautiousness to her actions when the Phantom's voice wasn't exerting its influence over her.
When Christine faints, Bourg reacted in panic – clearly this was not the reaction he had hoped for. It was a nice variation and showed the character’s concern for his protégée.
Stranger than You Dreamt It:
Bourg had his highs and lows in this scene. While he was very energetic at the organ (stabbing at the keys in a highly exaggerated fashion for those last seven notes), his "Damn you! Curse you!" was considerably subdued. But a nice standout moment for me was his "Oh, Christine", delivered as if he was ashamed of himself because of his appearance. And when she returned his mask, he did not resume that instant confidence once the mask was back on, instead reached his hand out with tenderness to touch Christine before catching himself; choosing to take her back above. I’ve always liked that moment of humanity/vulnerability before his "Phantom" demeanor returns, so it was good to see it again.
Like I said previously, Sobel really cranked up the acting this time around. Maybe a bit too much since it teetered precariously on the edge of parody, but she was more engaging in the role this time around – it felt like she was actually having fun with the part.
Wow, Brianne's "(shriek) He's there! The Phantom of the Opera!" was so loud I nearly jumped out of my seat.
There seemed to be LOTS of extra characters onstage when the Phantom hung from the chandelier – even ballerinas who were already dressed for the impromptu ballet André insists be pushed up from Act… um… Three! I don’t recall them ever being out there before, but that’s probably just another example of me not taking in the whole scene at that moment (and very likely me using that time to prompt other audience members to turn around and look at the Phantom hanging from the chandelier high above them). I also noticed another stagehand up in the flies trying to grab the rope that had hung his poor co-worker. Nice touch.
Oh, and since the stagehand that is hung isn’t dressed like and doesn’t look anything like Buquet, does that mean in the Vegas version Buquet survives?
All I Ask of You/Reprise:
I don't see how people can't love this scene and this song. Sure, you could play mix and match with the lyrics and no one would notice the difference, but it's a beautiful melody and THE big love duet of the show. Plus when Ragone sings it's like being wrapped in a warm blanket.
Bourg's rooftop reprise was excellent, full of genuine heartbreak at what the Phantom overheard. And his exit? Spreading his cloak wide like he's the godd@mn Batman as he roars out his final lines and then slowly drawing it closed over himself to essentially vanish as the angel statue rises back up? Totally awesome.
The Opera House façade got a round applause from those totally awesome school kids back in the mezzanine.
Ragone played frustrated confusion when Christine insisted on keeping their engagement a secret. It's probably the least appealing part of his portrayal (it'll take just a nudge in the wrong direction and suddenly he's channeling Hadley Fraser) but a necessary and logical element to make Raoul less of a pushover. Thankfully, the moment is brief and redeemed at the end of the number when he notices something's wrong with Christine (as she is somehow aware that the Phantom has just arrived) and goes up to her expressing concern.
Giry's Confession/Notes II/Twisted Every Way:
Ragone nearly took a tumble on the steps as he returned to the stage, but he recovered gracefully and continued on with the scene. I sympathize – I’ve tripped on those steps several times after the show, myself.
Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again/Wandering Child:
Hertzenberg did a great job here, portraying Christine like a lost, lonely child and very vulnerable to the Phantom's machinations. And while there was conflict in her when the Phantom appeared, that signature expression came over her face and she, almost enthusiastically, fell back under his spell.
Point of No Return:
More hands, less apple!PoNR this time around. Guess you can’t win them all. But Meg now has extensions, so the hotness factor balanced out. I also enjoyed at how Bourg played the Phantom as barely keeping his composure in check and that when Christine made a break for the wings after feeling the mask under his hood, he literally growled, "No!" as he grabbed her wrist and pulled her back.
The Don Juan sequence has so many plot holes that I've started referring to it as the "Swiss Cheese Scene." So when my attention isn't diverted by fruit-related activities (and it rarely has reason to be in Vegas), I try to see what the actors are doing in order to gloss over or patch these issues. In this case, I focused on the managers and how they basically leave Christine onstage after the trap has sprung. I was pleased that as Skala walked back into the wings, he put his hand over his eyes as if ashamed that they were forcing Christine to stay onstage with the Phantom even though they apparently had succeeded in trapping him. It may not explain why they’re doing it, but at least we know he feels bad about it.
Bourg's reprise began in a very pleading manner and slowly built until he forced his ring onto Christine's finger. I've seen it played this way and also with Christine taking the ring and putting it on herself. I'm sure there are legitimate reasons why the actors choose to do it one way or another, but for me, having the Phantom take Christine's hand and put the ring on her finger himself, coupled with his use of Raoul’s words from the rooftop makes sense in being both aggressive (imposing his will on matters, embodied by forcing her to wear the ring) and manipulative (using Raoul's genuine words of affection as his own, not to mention also revealing that he was eavesdropping on them all those months ago) enough to cause Christine to suddenly rip his mask off in front of everyone – which I'm pretty sure wasn’t part of the original plan.
Down Once More/Track Down This Murderer:
Hallelujah for a Christine that doesn’t just sit in the boat like a dead fish! Hertzenberg speaks not a word in this short scene, but expresses her character’s utter despair at her circumstances through facial expression and body language. And when the mob’s verse began, she lifted her head with a look of faint hope. Very nicely done.
Overall, the Final Lair was full of raw emotion and as a result, a very powerful scene. Bourg, Hertzenberg, and Ragone delivered in spades here. There was an almost lascivious eagerness to Bourg's line delivery of "joys of the flesh" and a crushed reaction to Hertzenber's "tears of hate" as he stood at the organ. His "Make your choice", by contrast, was spoken in a very neutral manner, neither angry or tearful – not as if he didn't care about the answer, but more like the Phantom was dead to being moved by any pleading Christine might try.
Hertzenberg was given a nice long pause after Bourg's line to portray the heavy decision Christine was contemplating (and I like that the Vegas actresses are given this moment. In other productions it almost seems rushed). Bourg's reaction to the kiss was uncertainty - almost an inability to believe what just happened – and a trepidation as he moved his arms to embrace her.
One of my biggest pet peeves about the Wolverine "Snikt!" Cage is that all that post-kiss tension of "what's the Phantom gonna do?" is lost without the sheer physical vulnerability afforded by the Punjab lasso scenario. Usually the Phantom just stumbles over, waves his hand meekly to lower the cage, is caught by surprise when the spikes retract, then pauses and waves again to release Raoul entirely. VERY little tension there, in my opinion. Except this time.
Somehow, Bourg convinced me that in that split-second before he freed Raoul, there was still a threat, that he was still capable of doing something to his rival in that moment, even if he was several feet away from him and wasn't armed with a lit candle. I'm not exactly sure how he did it, since I don’t recall him diverging from the original choreography, so maybe it was something in his timing or body language. Regardless, the menace was there and it was welcome.
After freeing Raoul, Bourg's Phantom seemed to mutter his lines more to himself than to Raoul and Christine, up to the point when he had to raise his voice and chase them out of the Lair. In doing so, he evoked a feeling that the character's world was collapsing in on itself and that the Phantom was so overwhelmed that he was practically numb. Upon Christine's return of his ring, Bourg stepped in to kiss her hand but she stepped back and in doing so freed her hand from his, paused for a moment, then turned and fled from the room. Bourg then closed the show with his final lines, delivering them in a manner that said the Phantom was drained and turning his back on everything – that this was truly the end of the Ghost's love story.
In closing, the Las Vegas cast is still in top form, and being treated to actors I rarely or haven't seen before makes it feel like I’m seeing the show for the first time.
And next time I'll be sure to bring an entire graduating class to the show.