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JOAN SULLIVAN: ‘Phantom’ is phenomenal

Roger Honeywell as the Phantom of the Opera and Teresa Tucci as Christine Daaé. DAVID HOWELLS PHOTO
Roger Honeywell as the Phantom of the Opera and Teresa Tucci as Christine Daaé. DAVID HOWELLS PHOTO - Contributed

Opera on the Avalon’s gorgeous production features stunning performances

Besides being aware there was a Broadway/West End/feature film juggernaut entity called “The Phantom of the Opera,” I knew nothing of “The Phantom of the Opera.”

This is because I am a non-musical person. There are two types of people in the world, musical people and non-musical people. I just do not get musicals (excepting the glorious “Jesus Christ Superstar”). For example, some years ago, I …experienced … “Cats.” (And still treasure my friend’s indignant assessment of the production — “Well, no wonder they called it “Cats”! What else could they possibly have called it? It’s just a bunch of cats!”)

And, Andrew Lloyd Webber, I’d like those three hours of my life back.

So, I take my seat in the audience for “Phantom” with some trepidation and a dearth of expectations.

As everyone but me knows, “Phantom” opens at the Opéra de Paris in 1905. An auction is underway, the lots including a poster advertising an old production called “Hannibal,” an ornate music box and pieces of the mysterious wreckage of a chandelier. An aging, infirm man, identified as Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny (Jeff Sullivan), bids on the items; he seems to have some familiarity with them. Then the dread figure of the Phantom of the Opera (Roger Honeywell) is evoked, and the scene shifts back 50 years.

“Hannibal” is in rehearsal. Soprano Carlotta Giudicelli (Noelle Slaney), peacock-vain, is in her natural habitat, centre-stage. But her aria is halted by a falling sandbag, which frightens her into abandoning that night’s performance. Christine Daaé (Therese Tucci), a member of the ballet corps, is brought forward to audition in Carlotta’s place. She nails it, simultaneously enchanting the Opéra’s patron, Raoul (turns out they knew each other as children).

But Christine’s elevation is not random. She has been brilliantly instructed by an enigmatic mentor, who is soon revealed as the Phantom, a.k.a. the Opera Ghost, a haunting, supra-natural being who constantly monitors the institution’s personnel and activities, pelting the producers with arrogant notes demanding a) payments, b) exclusive access to the best seat in the house, and c), that Christine be given leading roles.

The relationship between the Phantom and Christine is the core of the show, and its evolution drives the story. What starts as a tutor/pupil dynamic, a beneficial if weird exchange involving “the angel of music” — a term they both use to describe the other — becomes increasingly stalker/prey, with Phantom intensifying his demands of Christine’s talent if not very life, while she proves more resilient and resourceful — and possibly treacherous — than she appears. It’s not just the Phantom who’s wearing a mask.

It all unfolds with great energy, note-perfect emotion, and a murder or two.

The production values are gorgeous. The set is a series of cascading draperies in a constantly shifting palette, skeins of lights blooming and fading, and the most foremost scrim projecting painted landscapes, texts, snowflakes, and stars. A sweeping staircase reverses into a balcony or rooftops. Other props — an organ, sleigh, chairs — are deftly swept on and off by the cast.

Best of all, “Phantom” gives us non-musical people (let’s call us “n-mps”) two easy ins.

First, the music (composed by Lloyd Webber) is good. Really good. Textured, affecting, memorable.

Second, it solves the problem that worries us n-mps: namely, why are these people singing? In “Phantom,” everybody is singing because they are staging a series of operas, as the plot winds through their rehearsals and openings. They are singing because they are actually singers. These shows-within-a-show adds a veneer of realism that only heightens the magic (as does the occasional line of spoken dialogue).

I haven’t even talked about the performances yet. They’re pretty much across-the-board-tremendous. Added to the leads mentioned, Meg Giry (Grace Budoloski), Christine’s confidante, is outstanding, as is Madame Giry (Kelly-Ann Evans), who marshals and guards the ballerinas, a flock of little wrens. (She also seems to discern, or guess, more of the Phantom’s origins and motives than the others.) Everyone, really, is remarkable, owning each gesture, inhabiting every character.

Here’s my one quarrel: why mike the cast? It didn’t always work (never does, just like no announcement over an airport PA system can actually be heard and understood), but also, just why?

As we might anticipate, but surely never take for granted, the quality of work that Opera on the Avalon presents is really very high. Directed by Donna Fletcher, and conducted by Jeffrey Huard, “The Phantom of the Opera” choreography was by Marie Steffen. On a scale of one to 10, if “Cats” is a minus bajillion and “Jesus Christ Superstar” a 10, “Phantom” is pretty close to a 10.

“The Phantom of the Opera” has two shows today (Nov. 9) at the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre, at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and an extra show has been added for Sunday (Nov. 10) at 2 p.m.


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