Review: The Phantom of the Opera

2014-07-24 14.03.07A mere 26 years after it opened on Broadway, I finally went to see The Phantom of the Opera this week. (I definitely have my finger on the pulse, don’t I?)

But that’s misleading. I’m no stranger to The Phantom of the Opera. In fact we’re old friends, the Phantom and I. Along with Les Miserables, this was one of the musicals to capture my fancy at 13, and I more or less spent the next few years walking around listening to the songs on my portable cd player (remember those?). Over and over and over and over. “Julia’s LOST in the Phantom,” I recall my sister Ann saying one night when I decided to listen to the cd rather than talk to my family. I remember buying the tickets months and months in advance of its visit to the Fox in St. Louis, and when the night finally came and I got to see the touring production, I thought it was the greatest night of my life. I can’t really overstate how wrapped up I was in this show. I think I even wrote fan letters to Michael Crawford. Only Les Miz and Sunset Boulevard had the same kind of impact on my imagination. My sister Clare once told me I’d outgrow it someday, and I was actually insulted that she’d even suggest such a thing.

Of course I outgrew it, so much so that it never even occurred to me to see it on Broadway — even though I worked across the street at the St. James for the better part of a decade. Why would I go see Phantom when there were tons of newer and more interesting shows to see? Still, I always had fond memories of this, one of the shows that really introduced me to theater in the first place.

There were several reasons I decided to go visit the Phantom:

  • To begin with, Norm Lewis is an actor I’ve admired for several years — “his voice is like velvet!” as I told a friend yesterday — and is now the first black actor to play the Phantom on Broadway.
  • Christine too: I’ve thought for awhile now that Sierra Boggess should be a big Broadway star. My enthusiasm for her is based entirely on her terrific performances at the BBC Proms. I’d never actually seen her onstage.
  • I read in an article somewhere that Phantom’s orchestra has 29 musicians. Wow. I don’t know there there will ever be another Broadway show with so many musicians in the pit, and I wanted the opportunity to enjoy it.
  • I realized earlier this year that I’ve been to almost every Broadway theater; the Majestic was one of only a few exceptions and I decided to work on completing my “punch card” as I’ve heard you get a prize when you do. (Ok, you don’t, but wouldn’t that be nice? I want a Broadway punch card!)

So my friend Joann and I got tickets and spent the week prior gleefully announcing our plans to everyone in sight. And now that I’ve spent several paragraphs trying to justify my purchase, should I actually talk about the show?

It’s incredibly well-sung: both Mr. Lewis and Ms. Boggess sound terrific, and are as committed as you’d hope for. We were seated a little too far back in the orchestra for me to sense much depth in their performances (Note: If you go see Phantom, do NOT forget your binoculars), but the idea of the Phantom as a black man was intriguing and I think it worked well.

More than that, it was simply fascinating to see this show after so many years, and ponder what has made it so popular for so long. I suppose it’s got to be that Andrew Lloyd Webber really found the right material for his talents, and hired the right director (Hal Prince, of course), and the right designer (Maria Bjornson). The score is still beautiful, though I think the amplification was maybe a bit louder than it needed to be. It’s an absolutely gorgeous show, with drapey sets and beautiful costumes popping up everywhere, and the special effects were still pretty wonderful (though that chandelier does come down a bit slow. I wonder if they could speed that up with today’s technology?). Mr. Prince really knows how to put together a dazzler. That overture alone (when the theater slowly comes back to life) is still spine-tingling.

But man, oh man. There is absolutely no irony and very little wit to be found anywhere. (Certainly not in the lyrics!) I was amazed during the first act when I realized there were so few jokes in this show. Soaring ballads, passionate love affairs, creepy heroes? Yes. But laughs? No. Subtlety? No. (Just the fact that whenever the Phantom does anything spooky, Meg actually walks to the front of the stage and sings “He’s here, the phantom of the opera” will give you a sense of what I’m talking about.) No wonder people got grumpy about the British megamusicals when they came out. Imagine this after years of being spoiled by Sondheim’s wit and sophistication.

The other thing it doesn’t have is a fabulous choreographer. The faux-ballet sequences are really pretty dull, and in the past 25 years directors and choreographers have really gotten a lot better about  fluid choreographed transitions between scenes. (I’d love to see Susan Stroman tweak this choreography; she really knows how to make a show flow.)

I was fairly excited to see Phantom.

I was fairly excited to see Phantom.

All this to say I found myself getting bored in the first act. My teenage self would be shocked and appalled, and perhaps since I moved to New York I’ve become too versed in the trappings of a traditional Broadway show. I go see a show like Phantom and think: where’s my ‘I want’ song? Where’s the comic relief? Where’s the dialogue? Not to mention my dramaturgical nitpicks about the plot and characters’ motivations. But really, what I look for these days in a Broadway musical is joy. That’s the reason I keep coming back: this art form is, I think, strongest when it’s joyous and exuberant, and Phantom’s strengths lie elsewhere. 20 years ago, however, I was far more interested in heightened emotions, in romance, in tragic stories. If you’re looking for that, this show is just about flawless.

The house was packed (and I was astonished at how big the Majestic is), which makes me wonder just how long this show will last. It does seem like smash hits come and go, and the Phantom stays right in his lair on 44th Street. On the other hand, it did seem like most of the people there had rarely if ever been to the theater before. Lots of whispered conversations, cell phones buzzing, even texting. I glared at them all: the usher in me will never die. Just like the Phantom never dies.

My Grade: B
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes:
TIcket price: $47 (TDF)
Worth it: Well, when I think about whether or not I should have paid $47 to see a 26-year old Broadway show, the obvious answer is “uh, no”, but just for this one time, and since the show is in good shape, I’ll go with yes.
Standing ovation watch: Yep

Review: Much Ado About Nothing

2014-07-06 19.44.56The skies are clear; the warm summer day has cooled off; the pondside setting is gorgeous; your seats are terrific; you’ve got a glass of wine and are about to see a free play with friends. And there are no guarantees in the theater, but the Public usually puts on a damned fine show with an excellent cast and high production values. No wonder Shakespeare in the Park is so popular!

Last night was the final performance of Much Ado About Nothing, so this post is a bit useless for the rest of you, but it does give me a chance to endorse Shakespeare in the Park, so I’ll go ahead and do just that. This production, directed by Jack O’Brien, was really a delight from the very beginning. The prologue in Italian, the vegetable garden at the front of the stage, and the sun-drenched lighting beautifully called to mind an Italian villa in summertime. I feel transported just thinking about it, actually. The show was nearly three hours long, but didn’t ever drag, because it was full of wit, romance, high jinks, and of course, Shakespeare’s poetry.

Lily Rabe was sharp and very funny, nearly flawless as Beatrice. Though she is basically always flawless, right? Even better was Hamish Linklater as Benedick. During the first act I got a bit distracted by his wild beard (he eventually shaves it off, as you might remember), but he brought a nice mixture of brashness, physical humor, wit and energy to Benedick. Plus there was Brian Stokes Mitchell as Don Pedro. Casting people: if you want charm and gravitas in your show, Brian Stokes Mitchell should be the first guy you call. Not to mention his glorious singing. It’s definitely been too long since he starred in a Broadway musical.

Anyway, it was an utterly wonderful evening, and all four of us sailed out of the theater on a Shakespeare high. And we weren’t the only ones, as the following story might tell you:

In the bathroom line at intermission, a girl ahead of me told her friends: “This is great, but I thought we were going to see the original Shakespeare. I didn’t know they were going to translate it.”
Her friend said: “This IS the original Shakespeare.”
“No it isn’t. It’s in modern English. I can understand everything!”
Another friend of theirs interjected: “Well there are a few different translations….”
“No, there aren’t! This is the same Shakespeare as it always is!”
“Shakespeare wrote in old English,” the first girl kept insisting.

At this point the lady ahead of them jumped in before I could: “No, it’s not like Chaucer, they don’t have to translate. This is the original Shakespeare. But this show is one of the easier ones to understand. They’re not all like this one.”

I was fairly astonished at this whole exchange. I wonder if the modern American accents in the production threw that girl for a loop? But in any case, she made an excellent case for Shakespeare in the Park as a free event. To be honest, I’d been feeling a little fed up with the whole Shakespeare in the Park thing, even though it’s a summer tradition. The long wait for tickets (we arrived before 4 am on Sunday morning) prevents so many of us who love theater from being able to go. I hadn’t been in several years. I know what you’re thinking: Wow. I never knew Julia was so incredibly entitled! She thinks she should automatically get free Shakespeare tickets just because she likes shows? Which is why I was happy to be reminded that not everyone who sees these shows are part of the theater community. Lots don’t have any familiarity with Shakespeare at all. That’s the whole point, if I’m not mistaken?

Next up at the Delacorte is King Lear, which I will try to see (it’s the year of Lear, after all!), though a summer evening tragedy doesn’t hold quite the same appeal. But the Public definitely earned my good will with Much Ado, so bring on the next eight hour wait, I suppose!

My grade: A+
Running Time: 3 Hours
Ticket Price: $0 (with eight hour wait)
Worth it: Yes
Standing Ovation Watch: Yes*

*- Everybody stood, except for my roommate (the birthday girl! Happy birthday Rachel!) who was really reluctant to do so because she was worrying about what I’d say in my Standing Ovation Watch.

Review: Play/Date

Years ago I went on a (pretty fun!) date at Fat Baby, so it was hard to resist the idea of Play/Date, a show about dating at that very bar. The first thing you need to know about Play/Date is basically the only thing you need to know about Play/Date: it’s yet another immersive piece. Play/Date is a series of 17 short plays, from many different playwrights, all of them about a date of one kind or another at Fat Baby. The one acts take place simultaneously on all three levels of the bar. You’re encouraged to wander from play to play, listening in on dates, watching people text each other, drinking with the characters, and so on.

Or more concisely: “It’s exactly like Sleep No More, but with dating.” That’s a conversation I overheard between a cast member and her friends before the show. If you read this blog often, you may have figured out that I’m a big fan of eavesdropping on strangers at the theater, and so Play/Date immediately appealed to me. The whole show is essentially eavesdropping on strangers! How delightful!

So the idea is great. How’s the execution? Well, it’s almost inevitably uneven. There are some interesting one-acts; the 18 actors showed lots of energy and commitment. (I especially refer to the unnamed actress who starts the show by walking into a date topless.) I would imagine that it’s a fairly difficult show to perform, particularly in the comedic sequences, simply because the format doesn’t really allow for the actors to get a feel for their audience. Anyway, as for the plays themselves: generally, I found the straight couples to be more interesting than the gay couples; they just seemed to have better material. I also found the conflicts to be far more successful than the flirtations. I guess that’s no surprise. Who wants to pay to watch “drunk” people make out at a bar? There was also a lovely breakup scene, and several intriguing text conversations (the texts are displayed on the wall behind the actors).

But it was hard to engage with any of it very much. Because the structure of the piece encourages you to explore, I found myself wandering off the moment I started to lose interest in an interaction. That’s all right when you’re watching Sleep No More, which is essentially a dance piece. But throw in dialogue and it’s a whole different animal. The playwrights here have the task of trying to keep a distracted and tipsy audience (who might have missed half their short play anyway) engaged through text and conflict. Most of the time, they couldn’t manage it. It seemed like a good chunk of the audience paid little attention to the show and just spent the evening chatting with friends.

It was still worth seeing as far as I’m concerned, because I got such a cheap ticket and it’s definitely a worthwhile idea. There is lots of talent involved in this production: it was conceived by Blake McCarthy, who brought together a number of playwrights (even Greg Kotis from Urinetown!) to pen the plays. The theater company 3-Legged Dog is also involved: I’ve never seen any of their productions, but they’re known incorporating technology. (They must have been responsible for the cool text message projections.) If you’re going to see a show that doesn’t quite work, you at least want it to be interesting and ambitious, right? And Play/Date is both.

My Grade: C+
Running Time: I forgot to check my watch! Maybe 2 hours?
Ticket Price: $4.50
Worth it: Yes
Standing Ovation Watch: N/A (Most of us were standing throughout.)

Review: Once

2014-07-01 17.12.31Going to see new shows is all well and good, but when you have visitors in town, it’s generally best to go with something you know. I gave my cousins a choice of several shows, and was delighted when they selected Once, that lovely Irish Boy-Meets-Girl-Boy-Loses Girl musical. Here’s a show I don’t mind going back to.

The last time I saw Once, I was mostly blown away by how good the songs are. I know, I know, everyone else already knew that from the movie. What can I say? The songs affected me more onstage than they did in the film. I think it might have been the orchestrations, which (to my ears) give the numbers a fuller and richer sound. The other major pull of the show the first time I saw it: the choreography. I was seated up in the mezzanine, and Steven Hoggett’s  “movement” (as it is credited in the Playbill) gave the production a flow and grace that was simply lovely.

All that is still true, though I was in the orchestra this time around and felt more focused on the characters than the way they moved around the stage. Since I was so focused on the characters, the strengths of Enda Walsh’s book (adapted from the screenplay by John Carney) were especially noticeable. I loved the clever theatrical storytelling shortcuts, and the overtly emotional tone of the piece. One nitpick: We all know the songs (by the movie’s talented stars, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová) are very good. But it sometimes seems like half the show is taken up with complimenting itself on the music. The characters are perennially raving about Guy’s songs. I can’t think of any other musical that spends so much time informing you that this is Good Music.

Jessie Fisher was the new Girl, and I found her less aggressively quirky than the last Girl I’d seen. (This is a good thing.) Paul Alexander Nolan was the Guy, and he was rugged and handsome and winning and talented. (If I sound twitterpated, it’s just because I think I saw this actor once on the subway reading something literary, so I am particularly susceptible to his charms.) Basically, Once is still in very good shape.

I do wonder how people who love the movie respond to the show. Perhaps some of the low-budget charm is lost? For me, though, this is how you want a movie to be translated to the stage. So often when a movie is made into a musical, it comes off as a crass and commercial attempt to cash in on a successful franchise. Once is the counter example: when you see the stage production, it feels like the theater is the place where this piece always belonged.

My Grade: A
Running Time: 2 hrs, 15 minutes with intermission
Ticket price: $45 on TDF
Worth it: Yes
Standing Ovation Watch: Yes