MANILA, Philippines -- Twenty-five years since it debuted in London's West End, composer Andrew LLoyd Webber's "The Phantom of the Opera" still has the ability to dazzle, as evidenced from the three curtain calls given to the cast by a delighted well-heeled audience at the Main Theater of the Cultural Center of the Philippines during its gala performance on Thursday night.
The entire audience, many in suits and gowns, was on its feet in a prolonged standing ovation, particularly for South African actor Jonathan Roxmouth who plays the Phantom in this international touring production, which opened in Manila last Saturday, August 15.
Even those who have seen the production before in either London or New York's Broadway -- or, in the case of this writer, in Hong Kong in 1996 -- lauded the Manila production, which is really as good as it gets.
Having been seen by an estimated over 130 million people around the world, one can just sit back and enjoy what is touted as "the world's most popular musical," unmindful of the critical backlash it received more than two decades ago for its stage excesses and pretty pop songs. ("Phantom" actually lost in the categories of Best Score and Best Book at the Tony Awards to Stephen Sondheim's ingenius "Into the Woods.")
Through the years, the musical's most popular songs, the duet "All I Ask of You" and "Music of the Night," have become new Broadway classics, performed by the likes of Barbra Streisand.
The weaknesses of "Phantom" are still there -- the score is repetitive, the fictional opera segments (such as "Point of No Return") are too long, the counterpoints can sound messy to the ears -- but, what's more important, the brilliance that made it into a pop-culture phenomenon hasn't faded one bit.
"Phantom" is really a triumph of the spectacular vision of director Harold Prince and set and costume designer Maria Bjornson.
From the time the audience fills up the theater, they are already transported to the fictional opera house imagined by French author Gaston Leroux, whose book served as the basis for the musical. The proscenium is wrapped in grey cloth, the battens broken while boxes litter the stage.
The musical's prologue is decidely low-key and dark, as items from the theater are auctioned off. The first hints of music come from a music box rendition of the Act II opener "Masquerade" but when the auctioneer points to the wrapped chandelier, the by now familiar overture jolts the theater, the play's iconic prop comes to life and makes its way to the ceiling, the proscenium is unwrapped to reveal intricate gold statues and baroque details, and heavy Victorian drapes with large tassels are lifted, remarkably transforming the CCP stage.
(The chandelier, in other productions, hovers almost at center of the orchestra section, but adjustments were made for the CCP, such that it hangs nearer to the stage. As such -- spoiler alert here -- audiences didn't get to feel as if the chandelier would fall on them at the end of Act 1. Still the falling motion was swift, providing a dramatic end to the first act.)
From the sets to the costumes, Bjornson fills up the stage with lush details -- the gigantic backdrops to the staged operas, including a life-sized elephant with a moving head, the roof-top view of turn-of-the-century Paris, providing a sweeping romantic background for "All I Ask of You," and, of course, the Phantom's underground lair with hundreds of candles and ornate candelabras emerging from under the stage.
The costumes are just as rich in textures and patterns, particularly for the show-stopping "Masquerade" sequence on a grand staircase.
Prince's staging is, in a word, magical -- a gondola smoothly glides across a fogged lake, the Phantom emerging from the back of a gold statue hoisted up the stage, the use of trap doors and body doubles for the Phantom's dramatic entrances and exits, and bursts of flames onstage.
Then there's the astounding sound design, with the Phantom's voice coming from different parts of the theater, surrounding the audience with his omnipresence. There are also subtler tricks, like the precise calculations of the volume such as when the Phantom hears Christine singing from a distance.
While such details may seem bloated today, it still works for "Phantom." It flaunts its reportedly P15-million budget to impress and entertain, providing an unforgettable experience for theatergoers.
Precise or mechanical?
There are moments when the musical's well-oiled machinery feels a bit mechanical. The technical perfection, at times, buries the passion in the story, particularly between Christine (Australian actress Claire Lyon) and Raoul (South African actor Anthony Downing). Every movement is so precise, it leaves you cold.
Which isn't to say the two actors are inadequate. Lyon, in particular, is a triple-threat, gifted with a clear soprano and can even do ballet, while Downing has a pleasant, effortless voice and strong presence. (Then again, this criticism seems consistent -- through its Broadway debut in 1988 to the Joel Schumacher movie version.)
Fortunately, Roxmouth gave a very strong performance that more than makes up for such moments. The actor, who won a best actor award in his home country for his performance as the Phantom, has an expressive, full bodied voice that shifts from airy falsetto to forceful screams. His Phantom is more diabolical at the start but, perhaps because of his young age, showed more pain in the end, finally letting go of Christine as he disappears into his underground abode.
Indeed, not a few theater-goers were left teary-eyed, proving that despite the musical's high-tech elements, old-fashioned weepy romance still wins in the end.
"The Phantom of the Opera" is definitely worth the long, long wait.