There’s something driving crowds to the theater still to see Phantom of the Opera, but aside from nostalgia and a few good songs, I’m not really sure what that driving force is. I’m one of those very rare folks that has never experienced the show live, despite having grown up listening to the soundtrack. Having never seen the original version, I can’t comment personally on the changes/updates that have been made to this production, but I will say several people I talked with who have seen both versions weren’t thrilled with the parts left out and I wasn’t sold on many of the parts “left” in. It’s a rare miss for me and Broadway San Jose and it’s a bit hard to reconcile the difference between reputation/expectation and the impression I was left with after the performance concluded, but I will try to analyze the best I can.
The biggest challenge for me is that there wasn’t much more to the musical than the music and the music alone didn’t tell a full, complete story. Musical Theater can’t typically win me over with JUST great music. It also kind of needs a plot. A thin one at least. With at least one character that you feel strongly about. A villain you hate, a hero you root for, a love story you can believe in. If it doesn’t have that, it can skate by on some REALLY good gimmicks if the music is solid enough or even if the cast is strong enough with the material they have to work with. I can honestly say I wasn’t rooting for any of these characters and that’s where I got lost and never recovered.
In one corner you have a bitter deformed, as-best-we-can-tell sub-par composer who uses fear, blackmail, extortion, and physical violence (including murder) to basically get whatever he wants including a chorus girl. In the other corner we have a demanding, past friend/lover/not really sure exactly what their relationship was – or age difference is – or how much time has really passed since whatever happened, happened guy, who thinks he can just hop right back into said chorus girl’s life and tell her what to do. Then you have the chorus girl who is afraid of the bitter deformed dude, yet sort of uses him to further her career, but plays the other guy for “protection” more than love and then flip flops back a few times. I didn’t like this triangle, but more importantly, I didn’t buy it. At the end of the day, what the script/book was deficient in in terms of basic exposition could have been solved with really good chemistry, but sadly, I felt nothing.
The music IS nice. Not my favorite, but yes, nice and technically the vocal skills of this cast were undeniable; notes were hit. Not ALW’s best maybe, but perhaps his best known. It seems that every other song is a relatively iconic one, true but again, you can’t rely on that to carry the show. If a musical performance is “good” we feel the emotions through the vocal interpretation, we don’t need to understand a single word or read a super title to grasp the full, deeper meaning. That’s kind of the cool thing about music, that the emotion of the singing can tell us everything we need to know about that moment. IT can fill in huge, gaping plot holes. And, yet, this cast didn’t. Chemistry I thought was superbly lacking and when combined with the bizarre structure of the show it just proved downright frustrating.
Technically while well executed, the special effects felt very dated to me. Cheesy pyrotechnics do not a show make in this case, which is odd coming from me, because I do like me some fire and spectacle. Our infamous chandelier effect was quite frankly underwhelming and laughable. The much lauded grandeur of Masquerade, was far smaller in scale than I was expecting and the costuming especially in that scene left me wanting. On the plus side though there was a lovely revolving stage with stairs that appeared and disappeared with sufficient mystery and panache, and the sound design was winning; exceptional even I’d say in some places.
Perhaps the expectations were just too high. Perhaps I’ve seen too much really, really good theater on this stage as of late. Perhaps I personally just expect more story and more spectacle. Any which way I look at it though, I just didn’t leave that performance a Phan-girl. 2 ½ jewels in the review tiara for a show that left too much to the imagination, and relied seemingly too much on some songs and nostalgic reputation for a newcomer like myself to engage. Phantom of the Opera plays through October 2nd at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts in Downtown San Jose.