‘The Phantom of the Opera’: Revival makes the most of show’s musical hooks, spectacular looks

Touring production arrives in town with opulent sets, powerful leads — and actual fire.

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The Phantom (Derrick Davis) leads Christine (Emma Grimsley) down to his lair in “The Phantom of the Opera” at the Cadillac Palace Theatre.

Matthew Murphy

No judgment, but there’s no question that Christine Daae, muse of the titular Phantom in “The Phantom of the Opera,” is not entirely of sound mind. She sings as much, repeatedly: “The phantom of the opera is there, inside my mind.” It’s understandable. Minus the gothic melodrama, surely we’ve all been there, yes? Internally arguing with whatever chandelier-hating demon lurks within the Parisian sewers metaphorically lurking beneath our outwardly shiny facades?

In Cameron Mackintosh’s lavish revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s mega-hit, Christine’s “angel of music” (who she believes was sent to her by her dead father) brings her to the edge of a windswept rooftop in the first act, eyes gazing blankly outward, teetering on the verge of an abyss. The Vicomte de Chagny has to yank her back to safety. Such is the emotional fallout when one is lured into the bowels of the storm sewer system for secret voice lessons by a masked stranger with a gondola.

‘The Phantom of the Opera’

Untitled

‘The Phantom of the Opera’

When: Through Jan. 5

Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph

Tickets: $46 - $136

Running time: Two hours and 35 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission

Info: broadwayinchicago.com

Fans will be glad to know that the bombast remains intact 29 years after “Phantom” first came to Chicago. If “Cats” ushered in the era of mega-musicals, “Phantom” achieved peak-megatude. It still does. The iconic chandelier sparkles with gorgeous excess in director Laurence Connor’s reboot. More is more in Andrew Lloyd Webberland, and so it is here. The Phantom literally lights the stage on fire. Lots of fire. In one scene, you can feel the scorching heat halfway across the Cadillac Palace.

As for the story, it hasn’t aged well, but that’s mostly the fault of Gaston Leroux, who wrote the 1909 novel adapted by Webber (music, book), Charles Hart (lyrics) and Richard Stilgoe (book, additional lyrics). The plot follows Christine (Emma Grimsley), a ballerina the Phantom (Derrick Davis) decides is his muse. He threatens to unleash disaster if the Paris opera he haunts fails to elevate Christine to star status. Or if anyone sits in Box 5, his special seat. He incapacitates the leading soprano and murders a stagehand to show he means business.

Christine is terrified and torn between two lovers. On the one side: The Phantom, forcing her to deliver increasingly demanding arias while blindfolded and/or descending perilous spiral staircases. On the other: Raoul (Jordan Craig), a homecoming king type who — like the Phantom — does not think twice about sauntering into Christin’s private dressing room and insisting she leave with him immediately.

You can fault “Phantom” for all matter of things: It equates monstrousness with disfigurement. Its leading lady has no agency. Raoul is a vapid nothing-burger. The Phantom’s backstory, when we finally get it, explains precious little. But all of that fades amid the production’s catchy musical hooks and visual splendor, from that infernally impressive chandelier to the endless opulent costumes and sets (gorgeously rendered here by Maria Bjornson and Paul Brown, respectively). Heck, there are at last three opera scenes embedded in “Phantom,” and one of them (“Hannibal”) requires a damn elephant. Not a real one, obviously, but still.

Everything about this “Phantom” drips beauty. The colors are saturated. The choreography (by Scott Ambler) is dreamy, particularly his Degas-inspired ballet dancers. Brown’s set is a stunning achievement, especially when Christine descends to the Phantom’s lair, steps materializing from ether as a massive, treacherous turret slowly spins downward.

You can’t fault the cast here. Davis gives a heroic performance. It’s a hugely physical role, what with the Phantom’s habit of lurking in underground lakes, dangling from eaves and forever thrashing between tyrannical grandiosity and abject self-loathing. The Phantom’s thundering theme has rarely sounded better. Grimsley’s soprano is all steel and silver: Crescendo-ing through the upper reaches of the treble clef is an athletic endeavor, and Grimsley pulls it off without sacrificing Christine’s gossamer fragility. Their tango duet in “Past the Point of No Return” smolders in the wake of “Don Juan Triumphant,” a Caligula-worthy bacchanal that includes a grotesquely glistening boar-on-a-spit and a peacock.

Finally, the cast benefits from two of Chicago’s finest musical theater vets: Rob Lindley is pompously hilarious as opera manager Monsieur Andre. And Susan Moniz is formidable as ballet mistress Madame Giry, a woman who knows more than she’d like to about the Phantom and his murky origins.

“Phantom” paved the way for the era of musicals as spectaculars: the gravity defiance of “Wicked,” the massive cats of “The Lion King,” the swimming pool of “Sunset Boulevard” — they all owe a debt to “Phantom.” This revival of the blockbuster will burrow into your mind.

Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.

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