Although Michael Lackey's Phantom quietly says these words to the departing figure of Christine as she slips out of his life, the same could be said for the actor, who was donning the mask and cape for his final scheduled performances in the title role.
Watching Michael Lackey as the Phantom is like going back in time to the '90s when "Phantom" ruled the world. And Las Vegas Company chose well in selecting this talented actor with previous experience in the Phantom role to understudy the part throughout its six-year run.
When I arrived at the theatre, I found that my seat was between a man and woman, and it was obvious to me that they were a married couple who weren't able to find two adjoining seats for the performance. So to be polite, I offered to switch seats so they could sit together. And what was my reward? Sitting next to a man and his female companion who I suspect was a professional escort. And she wasn't the classy kind, either. She was more of the Jersey Shore variety. Her voice was kind of a cross between Fran Drescher and Kathleen Turner. And she was carrying a drink. And she had some Phantom merchandise in a noisy plastic bag. To say she was a distraction would be an understatement. Case in point – the Phantom's pre-show announcement:
(Phantom VO): "Good Evening, ladies and gentlemen –"
(Woman sitting next to me): "Good evening!"
(Phantom VO): "—and welcome to my opera house. The legend which you are about to behold demands your closest attention. It is therefore my wish that all cellular telephones be turned off for the duration of the performance."
(Woman sitting next to me, addressing no one in particular) "Turn your phone off."
(Phantom VO): "The use of photographic and recording equipment is also strictly forbidden. Thank you, and enjoy the show."
(Woman sitting next to me): "…you're welcome!"
This was gonna be a LOONNNNGGGGG night…
With Lackey behind the mask, we had Scott Watanabe as a chubby-cheeked Auctioneer who always looked like he had a twinkle in his eye. Tonally different than Lackey's somber yet creepy stamp on the role, but good nonetheless.
Cue monkey music box…
(Woman sitting next to me) –"Aww, I want one…"
(Me): shakes his head in annoyance
Having seen the show so many times, I rarely pay much attention to the dialogue in this scene anymore but instead look at it as a treasure-trove of little character moments for everyone from the principals to the ensemble members. As such, I'm always looking around to see what cast members are doing that gives a little more dimension to their part. This go-round, when Lefevre announced his retirement, I noticed Joan Sobel's Carlotta give a quick glance and smirk ("Ha! Told ya! You owe me ten francs, buddy!") to Piangi, John Leslie Wolfe's André continue to fix his gaze curiously on where Madame Giry pulled the Phantom's note out from (was he expecting a bra to come out next?), and Kristen Hertzenberg's Christine listening attentively as Carlotta performed "Think of Me" for the managers as well as how she tugged on Meg's arm alarmingly when her friend suggested that she play Elissa.
The crowd was pretty responsive to the humor, like Larry Wayne Morbitt's antics as Piangi and the reveal of the stagehands sitting in the elephant. Which brings me to a side note: how much leeway do the stagehands get in what they're doing inside the elephant? Most of the time I see them eating, and once I saw them playing cards. What's next? Playing patty-cake? Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard, Spock? Smoking a big bag of weed?
Think of Me:
"Think of Me" is written as a showcase number for both Christine the character and the actress playing her. I always look at it as an opportunity to put myself in the heads of the other characters and witness this young woman's voice blossom as she sings – unlike the woman sitting next to me, who rattled the ice in her drink in that quiet moment before Christine starts the "audition," and upon the beginning of the transition from rehearsal to gala night, offered up this gem:
(Hertzenberg): "If you ever find a moment, spare a thought for me…"
(Woman sitting next to me): "Go girl…"
(Yiayia from the Athenos Greek Yogurt commerical): "Prostitute."
Hertzenberg sounded much stronger vocally compared to when I'd seen her a couple weeks back, her absolutely gorgeous voice is a definite asset to the production. She does her own unique variation of the cadenza, which sounds like it leaps over a note here and there. I haven't heard any other Christines do it like that.
Andrew Ragone's enthusiasm as Raoul as he breaks etiquette to applaud mid-aria, is – as always – a great pleasure to watch.
Angel of Music:
Brianne Kelly Morgan played Meg as very giddy and girlish, very inch the young, enthusiastic best friend. And although it took considerable effort, I did manage to move my attention away from Meg and Christine and for the first time have a peek at what Madame Giry and the rest of the ballet chorus is up to in this scene – specifically Tina Walsh's Giry looking around, realizing her daughter was missing and leaving her ballet girls to search for her. Walsh's delivery of, "Then PRACTICE" was very firm and strict. Kinda reminded me of that teacher we all feared in grade school.
Little Lotte/The Mirror:
As Madame (Fifi) Firmin, Emily Herrera Thrasher really acted the #@&% out of the "Greedy!" line, saying it very scoldingly and if slightly appalled at her husband's obsession over profit. This of course, lead us to Christine's dressing room and this unsolicited commentary --
(Ragone, firmly): "Gentlemen, this is one visit I prefer to make unaccompanied."
(Escort, knowingly): "Mmm-HMMM!"
(Me, internally): Lady, I swear if you don't shut up, I'm gonna punch you in that gigantic Adam's apple of yours.
Raoul has always been a problematic character as secondary male lead in that the script doesn't give him much stage time to develop and therefore diminishes the potential in the love triangle. By my estimate, a good Raoul will take advantage of every scene, every line, every unspoken moment he has to give the character shape and life. Ragone definitely gets points for the warmth and sincerity he brings to Raoul in this scene, even injecting a bit of sad puppy emotion into the way he said, "You can't have lost it, after all the trouble I took."
Michael Lackey's really savored the words in his mirror voice-over and did a full-frontal when he was revealed in the mirror.
Hey, I know it's Vegas, but I didn't mean it like that, okay?
Like Phantoms of old, instead of turning his head to the left like principal Phantom Anthony Crivello to emphasize the mask, Lackey looked straight ahead which causes the "good" side of the Phantom's face to be illuminated – which fits the character's desire to downplay the "bad" aspects of his appearance in this early part of his interactions with Christine.
The mirror illusion was a bit light on the fog, so you could just make out the sliding glass that allows the actress to pass through without any apparent disturbance to the mirror.
Phantom of the Opera:
Whoops, now they've over-compensated. There was a whole lot of fog in the lake scene. So much so that I couldn't see the candles at all.
I absolutely LOVE how Lackey sings his first verse of the title song. So dark, so rich, and (for lack of a better term) "chesty" – deep and full or resonance. Original Phantom Michael Crawford shares this quality and it's one of the main points of appeal for me in how I rank Phantoms. It gives the character's vocals a sense of power that goes beyond sounding "pretty."
Music of the Night:
In my previous review of Lackey, I had described him as an Old School Phantom. And as this would be his penultimate performance in the role with the Las Vegas company, I thought I'd take this opportunity to go into more depth as to why I describe him that way.
Just as a photocopy degrades with each subsequent generation, so have many interpretations of the Phantom been watered down and become less engaging. But when Lackey was originally given the role of Phantom understudy back in the '90s as part of the US Tour, they went all the way back to the source – in this case, the notes taken when Michael Crawford originated the character – for his training for the part. As a result, his Phantom is much closer to that early interpretation: an older man with a magnetic aura of power in both his voice and manner. None of this "young, rock and roller" nonsense that seems to be in vogue with other productions out there.
Lackey had the classic Crawford-esque gestures and an authority in acting akin to Brad Little. Less of a teacher/student statement and more of a seductive quality than the previous time I'd seen him, Lackey's performance also felt very in-the-moment, like the words were spontaneous. His heavy gasp after striking the signature pose is a signature in itself of Lackey's Phantom (if you read it as the character's reaction to holding Christine in an embrace for the very first time, it's very telling), and he must be the tidiest of all the Phantoms I've seen in how he pulls off the mirror's dustcover in a very simple and straightforward manner, then gathers it up and sets it aside rather than just throwing it carelessly behind them. He also shows genuine alarm when Christine faints, which is the choice I prefer in this scene.
Stranger than You Dreamt It:
Lackey is a very animated Phantom at the organ, not only using a lot of shoulder movement when he's stabbing out is melody for Don Juan Triumphant, but also playing the melody out in the air with his hands before writing it down, tapping the end of his quill against his cheek while pondering how the music should go next, and inserting a deep laugh to himself just after Christine's "and in the boat, there was a man…" line.
The audience again responded nicely to the humor in this scene. Let's face it, Notes is a huge exposition dump and it relies a lot on the audience understanding what's being said/sung. Tonight though, it suffered from the microphone mix not emphasizing certain characters so that you could barely hear their lines even while sitting in the front row. Regardless, the vocals were great and the acting was great and the audience really seemed to enjoy the scene. Or to quote the woman sitting next to me as the septet closed out "Prima Donna" with a thunderous vow of defiance…
(ESCORT): "All right!"
(me): OK, for once we are in agreement.
Let me take a moment to talk about Don Attilio, may I? One of the choice minor characters, the role is woefully underused in the Las Vegas version (I really miss the long low note that many actors in the past milked for the humor). Marc Cedric Smith does a good job with the part and plays it even with a bit more virility than those I've seen in the past.
And amusingly, Morgan's scream preceding Meg's trademark line, "He's there! The Phantom of the Opera!" was less a frightful cry that night and more of a "silent movie ea, hyperactive, waving your hands in the air wildly histrionics." Not so much an "AAAAAHHHH!!!!" as a "WAAAAUGGGHHHH!!!!!"
All I Ask of You/Reprise:
Lackey's single hand, slowly emerging from behind the angel statue to reveal his presence in this scene is again, very old school, as is the palpable anguish that he brings to the Phantom's lament. Lackey let the pain simmer then build as he heard Christine and Raoul's words echo from far below, culminating in a furious "NO!!!" and followed by angry yet tremulous vocals as he swears that Christine will regret her decision.
Giry's Confession/Notes II/Twisted Every Way:
Remember awhile back in "Little Lotte/The Mirror" (that's what – about three hours in reading-time?) when I said that a good Raoul will take every opportunity at his disposal to give his character personality and life? Well, Ragone did it again in this scene by hanging his head with a regretful expression when Christine ran off after refusing to participate in his plan. You could then see in his body language Raoul steeling his resolve and issuing his challenge to his mysterious rival. That, my friends, is the definition of a good Raoul.
Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again/Wandering Child:
Hertzenberg's "Wishing" was very beautifully sung and full of emotion. Not really much more I can add beyond that that I haven't said before.
The "Wandering Child" duet also sounded great, Lackey using the "fathering gaze" lyric variant that I've always preferred and leaning down and toward Christine as he urged her to come to him. Lackey played Christine and Raoul's escape with surprise, like it was something he had not anticipated would happen. And after he appeared to cause the stage to erupt in flame, the audience murmured in awe and applauded; the peanut gallery adding –
(Escort): "Wow! It burns your eyebrows!"
shortly followed by…
Before the Premiere:
... police walking out from the wings.
(Escort): "Uh oh…"
(me): Totally not surprised by that reaction, lady.
Point of No Return:
Lackey re-introduced Passarino Cloak!PoNR – his free hand running over his torso while Christine is on bench, caressing her cheek with the back of his fingers before lowering his hand to lift the goblet to her lips, and lots of gesturing that mirrored Christine's motions.
Post-unmasking, Lackey played the Phantom's lines as a genuine plea, like a man who is putting his heart in the hands of the woman he loves, leaving himself completely vulnerable. You could feel his thoughts as he suddenly came up with the idea of giving Christine his ring, but his actions quickly reverted to his more controlling nature when he forced it onto her finger rather than her actually accepting it willingly. All this makes Christine's unmasking of the Phantom onstage in front of an entire audience all that more of a shock and "betrayal" to him, even though in truth he gave her no other option.
The Final Lair is a scene that is a joy to watch when you have three actors who have a solid grasp on their characters and how they relate to the other two. The nuances that come out of this connection/communication between the trio make the scene all the more intense.
Hertzenberg's Christine is strong-willed, clearly angry at her treatment by the Phantom and not afraid of giving back as good as she gets, yet still unable to find a way out of the predicament she's in. Her lack of passivity is a trademark of all the Vegas Christines and makes for a much more engaging climax.
Ragone brings determination (his "Show some compassion!" delivered with forcefulness that was just a hair shy of banging his fists against the portcullis in frustration) and vulnerability ("Let me see her" was sung very pleadingly) to the table, his Raoul clearly aware that he was obviously at a disadvantage but still desperate to save the woman he loves.
And as befitting the unhinged nature of the character at this point, Lackey's Phantom is emotionally all over the place, at turns his vocals roaring with rage or choking with hurt. His "joys of the flesh" line held an eerie tenderness that played in counterpoint to his reaching out to Christine as his eyes ran down her body before recovering his composure. He displayed a very mocking attitude towards Raoul, but turned away when Raoul and Christine embraced, unable to bear watching their obvious love and devotion to each other.
Once Raoul was trapped in the Phantom's spiked cage (which I personally think greatly limits the actors choices compared to the Punjab lasso in the original staging in addition to raising a couple of plot issues), the Phantom's anger seemed to grow and grow as he demanded Christine make an impossible choice. When she rebukes him, it clearly throws him off-balance. She approached him, and when she reached out to touch his arm in an attempt to appeal to his humanity, Lackey pulled away angrily growling, "No!" and retreating to his throne.
In his ultimatum to Christine, you could feel the Phantom's fury boiling over as he slowly said, "You try my patience," in a voice so deep it sounded like it came out of the pits of Hell, followed by a long pause and then his frustration break through as he cried out, "Make… your… choice!" his voice trembling as he wrapped his arms around himself and turned his back to her. Hertzenberg's contemplative response was filled with pity, understanding, and compassion. And when she kissed him, it was a kiss filled with mercy, wordlessly telling him how sorry she felt for how he was treated by the world.
In shock, he didn't seem to believe what had just happened, shuffling away while touching his fingertips to his lips. Lackey stretched out the time before releasing Raoul in much the same way Ian Jon Bourg (the other Phantom understudy) had done when I saw him play the part a few months prior. After the spikes retracted, Lackey stumbled across to the organ, waving an arm to lower the cage. Once it was down, he paused, standing tall and roughly tugging on his jacket to straighten his appearance, his strength seemingly returned as he looked at Christine with a stony expression and lifted his hand menacingly towards the cage. But you could see him begin to faintly tremble as emotion began to overwhelm him again and then, with a frustrated grunt, he freed Raoul.
Lackey sounded very vulnerable/human, the Phantom's aura of power and mystique having been stripped away. But he still found the strength to gather himself and frighten them out of the Lair, only to have it suddenly evaporate again as he crumbled to the floor, weeping in despair. Crawling over to the music box, he stroked its hair as the tears flowed. To quote Leroux, "Clearly, we must pity the Opera ghost."
When Christine returned, he got to his feet and after she returned the ring, he followed his quiet "Christine, I love you" by reaching out with both arms hopefully. Hertzenberg sobbed, backing away and then turning and running off, not looking back. "I love you!" he called after her. Then, standing there alone with a voice that seemed small and empty of all hope, he softly added, "Don't go…"
Holding Christine's veil and weeping into it, he mouthed their words as Raoul and Christine sailed off; turning back in time to see them slip out of view. Then that grand resonance in his voice returned as he sang out his closing lines with a kind of finality, leaving everything he knew behind.
I was unfortunately unable to stay for Lackey's final performance the following night, but I did get to chat with him after the show along with his other guests who had come in to see him. Even got him to autograph my Prologue auction programme prop! Funny and always gracious, the talented and versatile Michael Lackey is an integral part of Phantom history and will be sorely missed when this show comes to an end.