Donald Munro

In a chaotic world, a darker ‘Phantom of the Opera’ brings spectacle and tradition to the Saroyan

Get a glimpse at 'Phantom' chandelier, costumes

Mitch Hodges, stage manager for the “Phantom of the Opera” at Fresno's Saroyan Theater, shows a featured fixture of the show, the 2,000-pound chandelier, and some of the costumes, some more than 20 years old.
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Mitch Hodges, stage manager for the “Phantom of the Opera” at Fresno's Saroyan Theater, shows a featured fixture of the show, the 2,000-pound chandelier, and some of the costumes, some more than 20 years old.

Outside the “opera house” Friday night, the world stormed. A hurricane rambled up the East Coast. A leaked “Access Hollywood” video hit the presidential campaign with Category 5-force winds. Hacked emails, presumably by Russia, introduced bipartisan inclement weather. If political upheaval weren’t enough, baseball fans obsessed over a perennial underdog team aiming to make sports history.

All happening in real time.

But inside the Saroyan Theatre, at the official opening night of the very fine national tour production of “The Phantom of the Opera,” the climate was just right. Sure, Christine was wrapped up, as always, in her eternal conflicted love triangle between a bossy rich guy and a disfigured psychotic inventor whose operatic angst has a body count. The poor players of the Paris Opera House were scurrying about trying to avoid getting hit by falling objects. The mood was dark and menacing. The music seethed with passion and pain.

Sunny and happy, this musical ain’t.

Yet there’s something reassuring and amiable about the Andrew Lloyd Webber version of “Phantom,” which has been toodling around for nearly 30 years now, that made me glad I was inside the Saroyan and escaping outside reality, if only for a few hours.

For many fans, the experience is a ritual. They adore the music. They ache over the storyline. They anticipate the big special effects. (Yes, this touring production has a monster-size chandelier, and considering that I was sitting directly beneath it, I got a little tense even when I knew what was coming.) They swoon over doomed love.

The good news: For those who waited all these years for the production to finally make it to Fresno, the production offers a take that satisfies the need for spectacle, even if it doesn’t quite achieve the opulence of the original.

Producer Cameron Mackintosh has mandated that his version of “Phantom” won’t be scaled down in a way that dilutes the spectacle of the experience. Rather than a bare-bones “second national tour” with non-Equity cast and two-night stands, “Phantom” has remained a luxury touring experience. This Fresno engagement is identical to recent productions in Los Angeles, San Francisco and other major first-tier tour destinations: same Actors Equity cast, same revamped scenic design, same classic costumes.

It’s a fine outing.

I say this even though “Phantom” isn’t among my favorite musicals, never having quite gotten caught up in the Sturm und Drang of getting hit on by a dysfunctional guy living in a sewer. I appreciate the majesty and appeal of the music even if it doesn’t pack the same emotional wallop I get from lots of other shows.

What I do love about “Phantom,” however, is its grandeur, intensity and sense of scale. In an era in which movie special effects have lost much of their shock and awe, thanks to computer-generated effects, and a majority of our viewing is done on small screens, the chance to see big, brash theater in real time is a treat to the eyes and ears.

I also appreciate the chance to see a different look for “Phantom,” which has been playing continuously on Broadway since 1988. If it were any other musical that closed after a run of a few years, we likely would have seen a revival or two in the meantime, each with a different creative vision.

But with “Phantom” seemingly running forever, that type of revival isn’t going to happen in New York. This revamped national tour, which was designed to be able to visit major cities along with smaller ones such as Fresno on the tour circuit, is a good and satisfying compromise.

It helps that this national tour features a mostly excellent cast. Katie Travis, as Christine, finds the little-girl vulnerability and big-girl chutzpah needed to make her character empathetic. (Her voice on opening night was pure and piercing, the perfect Lloyd Webber vocal colors.)

Storm Lineberger, as Raoul, the admirer of Christine’s that you could take home to a French mom, offers strong singing and acting. (I could have done without what I think is his attempt at a Scottish accent, however.)

The Phantom (Chris Mann), also vying for Christine’s affections but unfortunately someone who could never post an authentic photo on Match.com, hits all the right vocal requirements for the role but is a little weak in the acting department, never quite establishing a believable sexual chemistry with Christine.

Jacquelynne Fontaine is a standout Carlotta, the opera house’s resident prima donna, playing the role less as the has-been depicted in the original production and more as a defiant nemesis. David Benoit and Price Waldman, as the new owners who discover they’ve just bought a haunted opera house, offer the little sparks of humor the play needs.

The true standout player, however, is Paul Brown’s set design. Ingeniously designed, its main component is a huge, lurking silolike structure that suggests the tower of a medieval castle. Slowly rotating, it opens up into a variety of configurations that never cease to surprise. (I love the Phantom’s descent into his lair, including the appearance of a staircase.)

In fact, the darker vision from director Laurence Connor and the revised set services the material better than the original production, bringing the storyline down to a more human scale and capturing the grit and decay of the opera house. (Now if they can only pipe in a sewer smell. Well, maybe not.)

As the performance let out Friday, audience members grabbed their phones checking for the latest news, whether it be political, weather or sports-related. But for a few hours, they were transported to a world away. In ways both big and small, the “Phantom” delivered.

The Phantom of the Opera

Theater review

▪ Through Sunday, Oct. 16

▪ Saroyan Theatre, 730 M St., Fresno

▪ www.broadwayinfresno.com, 800-745-3000

▪ $33-$88

‘Phantom’ photo contest

We want to see you dressed up as the Phantom. Come on, there must be some Halloween gems floating around out there, trademark white mask and all. (If you want to remain gendered about this, you can give us your best Christine.) Or are you planning to go masked to the show itself? We’ll put together an online photo gallery that will be posted next week. Plus: There’s a prize! Winner gets a “Phantom of the Opera” poster, courtesy of the folks at Broadway in Fresno. (To enter, send your image to dmunro@fresnobee.com by noon Monday, Oct. 10.)

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