The Phantom of the Opera


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.




My college roommate Theresa is the world’s biggest fan of the 1992 Disney film, “Newsies.” The well-loved VHS copy she owns provided the backdrop to many a study-deferring undergrad evening. Motivated by fond reminiscence, as well as a general affinity for Broadway entertainment, I eagerly signed on to review the 2012 Tony Award-winner for Best Score and Choreography.

Those trophies are well-deserved. As my companion for the evening observed, “The dancing alone made it worthwhile. The cast was clearly not hired for acting, but that was some of the best dancing and choreography I have ever seen.” Slipped between the compliments about the fleet-footed crew of the Chicago production lies the problem.

The book, which I was surprised to read was written by four-time Tony Award-winner Harvey Fierstein, is plodding. And although the performers have physical grace and big voices — without exception — thespian skills appear to be a secondary requirement for this show. That’s a shame.

Because as the production’s promotional materials highlight, “Newsies” is “inspired by the real-life ‘Newsboy Strike of 1899,’ when newsboy Kid Blink led a band of orphan and runaway newsies on a two-week-long action against Pulitzer, Hearst and other powerful newspaper publishers.” With important history underpinning the source material — urban poverty, child labor abuses, and robber barons squeezing the already impoverished — the dialogue should feel a little less superficial than it ultimately does.

The film, which introduced much of the world to actor Christian Bale, is of course guilty of this as well (sorry Theresa). But I had hoped the transition to Tony Award-winning stage musical would result in greater heft all around. As already suggested, the original movie score, composed by legends Alan Menken and Jack Feldman, receives a turbo boost with seven new songs including the heartbreaking “Letter from the Refuge.” These new tunes supplement stage-ready barn burners such as “King of New York.”

The choreography from Christopher Gattelli is nothing short of amazing. There’s a scene before intermission where the newsies are each dancing gently atop torn newspaper sheets in faultless chorus. It’s hard not to wonder how many rehearsal injuries were produced to yield the perfect execution of this scene. The agility and acrobatics of the ensemble gives any Cirque du Soleil cast a run for its money. The children in the audience on the evening of the press premiere were enthralled.

I suppose at the end of the day, that’s the usual Disney target audience and “Newsies” is certainly family-friendly entertainment. Adults and devoted theater fans however, may find themselves in need of a little more grit. Particularly given the ripe opportunities offered by a true story of underdog triumph.

Joey Barreiro, who plays newsie hero Jack Kelly in this production, is adorable and exhibits a solid awareness of comedic timing. There’s also dependable, if one-dimensional, performances from Steve Blanchard and Kevin Carolan as historical figures Joseph Pulitzer and Teddy Roosevelt, respectively. And Aisha de Haas’s portray of Medda Larkin almost made me forget festering anger about the hooker with a heart of gold trope foisted upon the cast’s one and only woman of color. Almost. Her vocal chops are that cutting.

These observations aside, there’s nothing memorable about the acting. Morgan Keene as Katherine is ironically soft and non-threatening for a modern 20th Century woman ready to challenge the male-dominated field of journalism. Stephen Michael Langton, making his national tour debut as nervous union co-founder Davey, shows dramatic promise. I’d like to watch him perform again with more substantive material.

As I’ve already said, I’m aware of “Newsies” family-oriented target audience. However I would argue that “The SpongeBob Musical,” another Summer 2016 Broadway in Chicago offering, pleases the children without forgetting that adults actually buy the tickets. So many layers to that production. I would like to see a couple more added here.

“Newsies” runs through August 7 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.