Sheer spectacle of it all 

Phantom of the Opera lives up to everything a mega musical should be

He had never been to a musical before. His girlfriend brought him for his birthday to watch a matinee showing of the Broadway national tour of The Phantom of the Opera, running Aug. 2 to Aug. 27 at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver.

"It was great," he exclaimed catching up over the water cooler at work. "Those sets were incredible. The way they moved around."

He sweeps his hands reliving how the small dressing-room set magically slides in from nowhere and how hundreds of candles rise from the misty waters as a boat weaves through.

"I imagine the chandelier was probably bigger at the Toronto or New York show," he added.

He carries on about the incredible voices and how he spent a lot of time peering with binoculars at the timpani in the orchestra pit. He has his sights set on Tommy, the musical, for his next theatre adventure.

A mega musical such as Phantom is one of the best introductions a novice theatergoer can have to the musical theatre experience. Because even if you don’t get lost in the superb score of Andrew Lloyd Webber, the overall theatrical experience of spectacular sets, commanding costumes, cream-of-the-crop performers and the joy of a full orchestra, the show will hook even the most anti-theatre attendee – even if it takes a special occasion to get them there.

There is a reason the show has become the longest-running production in Broadway history, tallying up 7,485 performances by the 2006 New Year. The highest-grossing show in history caters to all tastes.

Music lovers take your pick: Think of Me, The Music of the Night and All I Ask of You. Group numbers layer conversation upon conversation with Lloyd Webber making musical sense of the chaos of the theatre owners trying to solve the problem of the haunted theatre. The songs, rooted with repeating melodies, points to the shifts in the love triangle. The Phantom’s love of Christine, Christine’s love of Raoul and Raoul’s returned affection for Christine.

Lloyd Webber’s music is not restricted to the theatre. Songs such as Don’t Cry for Me Argentina from Evita and Memory from Cats lived far outside their parent musicals in mainstream listening; so too does The Phantom hit The Music of the Night.

Hearing the heavenly song come to life again under the talented guidance of John Cudia as The Phantom was the show highlight for me. His phrasing and seemingly effortless soaring voice captured the heart and soul of the show. However, the Angel of Music title was aptly bestowed upon his leading lady Christine, the Phantom’s young soprano protégé, played by Jennifer Hope Willis. What she lacked in grace she made up for in vocal prowess, leaving audience members to rub the goose bumps from their arms.

Put a 36-member company behind Willis and Cudia – including the vocal gymnastics of Kim Stengel who plays the stereotypical diva opera singer Carlotta Giudicelli (the longest running Carlotta in Canada with more than 4,000 performances) – and how could you not be blown away by the sheer size of it, the source of all great mega musicals?

Looking for the spectacular? Phantom packs it in with a 10-foot high, 1,000-pound replica of the Paris Opera chandelier and the enormity of the costumes is so large, it takes twice as much space to store them as does costumes for the second longest running musical, Les Mis.

You can have all the clothes and spectacle in the world, but The Phantom doesn’t pull at the heartstrings like Les Mis. The Phantom lacks the emotional engagement Lloyd Webber better achieved in other favourites, such as Jesus Christ Superstar.

The mega musical franchise itself is often criticized because of the obesity of it. Coined the McDonald’s of musicals, with carbon copy actors, direction, sets and costume, whatever you see in Vancouver is what you are going to see in Toronto, New York London – just like the restaurant.

Each flick of a wrist, turned face, every movement is choreographed precisely so audiences will have the same experience no matter where you see it.

But on Friday, during the opening week of Phantom, the opening of the show was cut short when the giant chandelier didn’t take to the skies. House lights blared on. Technicians moved on stage to correct the problem. People chuckled.

"Must be the Phantom of the Queen Elizabeth," one man teased.

The less-than-perfect beginning was a wonderful reminder that in all the grandeur of these productions, there are everyday humans behind it – even if they have angelic voices.

Mega musicals are often the start of a beautiful relationship. Inspired audience members catch the culture bug and maybe opt for a theatre production, a ballet or opera.

But until then, the Phantom is a wonderful gateway into all three worlds, with its world-class casts and crews leading the way.

Ticket prices range from $94 to $44. Evening shows from Tuesday to Sunday start at either 8 or 7:30 p.m. with matinees at 2 p.m. on the weekends.

Reserve tickets by calling 1-800-889-8457 or visit www.ticketmaster.ca.

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