The Phantom of the Opera

phantom

Cameron Mackintosh’s stunning new touring production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Broadway smash “The Phantom of the Opera” is almost perversely difficult to describe with words alone. Performed by a cast and orchestra of 52, this reinvention of a timeless classic is large in more ways than one.

Directed by Laurence Connor, a studied veteran of many of Webber’s most famous shows, this “Phantom” offers the expected beautiful music, glowing performances and well-loved story. But it’s also a true feat of engineering. Toward the end of the first act, I had to stop myself from folding the program into a makeshift award to hand over to Set Designer Paul Brown. I’ve never been very skilled at origami anyway.

Although the Cadillac Palace is one of Chicago’s largest (2,300 seats), most historic (opened in 1926 as a vaudevillian showcase) and ostentatious theater venues, I never would have believed it large enough to contain the world that Brown unfolds over the course of an evening. I stopped counting after about a dozen distinctive, elaborate sets opened, closed, dropped and unrolled across the stage. I have no idea the ultimate cost or man hours invested in this production, but from all appearances, no expense or detail was spared.

With the look and atmosphere of a French palace even when the theater is dark (rose-marbled walls, crystal chandeliers, gold plaster ornamentation, large mirrors) the Cadillac is a natural fit for Webber’s iconic 1980s musical. Set in the Paris Opera House of the 19th Century, this sumptuous tale of love and bitter loss among the arts has found a perfect Chicago home for its limited run.

Nearly every theater lover knows the story: deformed since infancy, a bitter and intimidating man known as “the Phantom” (Derrick Davis) dwells in the Paris Opera House sewers. A gifted but frustrated inventor, composer and musician, the Phantom befriends a languishing chorus girl named Christine Daae (Katie Travis). The ethereal Svengali falls in love with Christine while training her to be an opera diva. He then sets about terrorizing the rest of the cast, demanding lead roles for his beloved protégé.

Though the Phantom bears a ghastly disfigurement and demonstrates his devotion in ways rather frightening to everyone involved, including Christine, it’s difficult not be touched by his misguided fervor. And of course, by the final curtain drop, the anti-hero’s innate goodness is evident.

The journey to redemption is a breathtaking one. Webber’s original score is just as haunting and mesmerizing as ever, complementing Brown’s audacious new set design. And as fully expected, the performances are developed and compelling.

Derrick Davis is a physically and vocally powerful Phantom. In speech he recalls a young James Earl Jones (especially fitting considering his time on Broadway as Mufasa/Scar in “The Lion King). And might I add that if you Google the performer’s headshot, you’ll find a visage decidedly unbeastly? Derrick Davis is one sexy ghost.

The diminutive Travis is a perfect complement to the sturdy Davis, but her Christine is no victim. Forced to choose between the life of her lover Raoul (Jordan Craig) and duty to her operatic master, Christine selects a third option of her own design that ultimately penetrates the Phantom’s embittered heart. It is she, rather than any man, who saves the day. And Travis makes the audience believe every gorgeous note.

I was first dazzled by “Phantom of the Opera” as a 15-year-old theater novice. New Year’s Eve 1994: I wore a green velvet dress as I entered Chicago’s Auditorium Theater feeling very mature indeed. With the first swing of the iconic chandelier, my eyes wider than saucers, the Andrew Lloyd Webber experience was seared into memory. As I left home last Friday evening, I wondered how the impression would hold up for a now 38-year-old, wizened critic. Would the magic have the same effect?

A thousand times yes. Just as it was when I was a teen, I’ll spend months humming the soundtrack, and perhaps longer trying to figure out how Paul Brown accomplished those intricate, otherworldly set pieces. Truly an amazing feat.

“The Phantom of the Opera” runs through January 8, 2017 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W Randolph Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 800-775-2000 or visit the Broadway in Chicago website.

The Christians

pastor-paul
Tom Irwin stars as Pastor Paul

K. Todd Freeman, Steppenwolf ensemble member and Director of “The Christians,” is one of the most important talents to be found among Chicago’s robust theater community. As an actor (Tony-nominated for 2014’s “Airline Highway”) and maestro (2012’s electric “Good People”), Freeman influences projects that refract sociopolitical and spiritual dynamics into fascinating onstage shapes.

And he’s done it again with the Windy City premiere of playwright Lucas Hnath’s 2015 work, “The Christians.” Press materials describe the production as one of “great complexity and passion [which looks] at the relationship between belief and behavior… [an] evenhanded, unbiased take on faith in modern America.”

The work can be appreciated agnostically, though it is clear from auditing the Book of Job-esque cautionary tale of a righteously compromised man, that Hnath has read his Bible. And under the direction of Freeman, a Deacon’s son, a tortured, and at times wistful portrait of theology and fellowship is brought to life.

Pastor Paul (a layered and deft Tom Irwin) is the man with everything — the beautiful, devoted wife (Shannon Cochran), a growing congregation and a newly debt-free church. The preacher is the spiritual leader of thousands, a man seemingly in command of traditional morality infused with 21st Century humanistic flexibility.

One fine Sunday, Pastor Paul confidently takes his place at the lectern to articulate a “new belief in the nature of salvation.” What could go wrong with sharing a more inclusive interpretation of forgiveness?

In short and without spoilers, just about everything. Yet because of Hnath’s subtle, graded writing, Freeman’s careful direction and a number of top-drawer acting performances, there are no finite answers. If the audience is left with more questions than certainty by curtain call, that’s precisely the point.

After all, saints and sinners are rarely as straightforward as their neat categorizations imply. “Schism” is a word carefully chosen in the dialogue as well as the work’s plot summary. As Pastor’s Paul’s congregation and spiritual authority are tested, relationships viewed as unwavering from an outsider’s perspective begin to splinter.

Veteran actress Jacqueline Williams delivers a shattering profile of structural and personal crisis. As Jenny, a believer who feels betrayed and deceived by her pastor’s evolution, the artist conveys a desperate need for simple, clear direction. As an audience member, it’s impossible to remain unmoved by Williams’ vulnerability.

Jenny has struggled, suffered and given so much that her weary pleas for accessible duality — heaven/hell, Jesus/The Devil — feel less like judgmental denunciation and more like bereft confusion. Through Williams’ tears and soft speech, we hear Jenny’s accusation loud and clear, “I have burdens enough to carry. You were supposed to take this one, Pastor Paul.”

Tom Irwin, a 1990s pop cultural legend for Generation Xers, is the understated glue that holds the powerful cast together. Many fans will find parallels between Pastor Paul and Graham Chase, the complicated television dad Irwin played on ABC’s “My So-Called Life.” Both characters appear to have it all, but are cut off from enjoying their earthly bounties by self-destructive streaks that may or may not indicate a misguided allegiance to personal over public morality.

Why did Pastor Paul unburden his soul that fateful Sunday morning? Was he really bidden by the voice of God, or was he victimized by his own hubris, the freedom of speech and direction permitted by a mortgage bill paid in full? Audience members will never be more certain than the conflicted Jenny, or Pastor Paul’s wife, who wonders about the implications for her own spirituality pursuant to her spouse’s epiphany.

What audiences of “The Christians” can say with certainty is that the conversion of Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theatre into a church with a live pre-show choir packs a powerful, authentic punch that sets the production’s tone. Veteran Scenic Designer Walt Spangler evokes the feel of a cavernous megachurch juxtaposed with the intimacy of direct spiritual conversation.

And chorus members Williams, Faith Howard, Yando Lopez, Leonard Maddox Jr., Jazelle Morriss, Mary-Margaret Roberts and Charlie Strater take viewers to the metaphorical mountaintop (regardless of belief) with soaring, passionate vocals that demand clapped hands and movement.

With an 80-minute running time and no intermission, “The Christians” is quickly paced, deeply felt and worthy of a spot on your 2016/2017 winter theater calendar.

“The Christians” runs through January 29, 2017 at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N Halsted Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-335-1650 or visit the Steppenwolf Theatre website.