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'Phantom of the Opera' still soars

After lurking in Western New York’s theatrical wings for 12 years, “The Phantom” is back in town. And someone needs to give the guy a Xanax.

A refreshed tour of one of the most popular musicals of all time, “Phantom of the Opera, featuring one of the more neurotic Phantoms ever to skulk his way through Andrew Lloyd Webber’s spectacle-laden tale of love and longing, opened a two-week run Wednesday in Shea’s Performing Arts Center.

The visually intoxicating affair, save for one slight technical glitch (could it have been the Phantom of Shea’s?) toward the end of the first act that actually helped the flow of the musical, went off with military precision.

It’s tough to ignore the suitability of an opulent showplace like Shea’s, now more grand than ever, for a musical that basks in its own opulence to the extent “The Phantom of the Opera” does. There’s something intoxicating about the way Laurence Connor’s staging, Paul Brown’s magnificent sets and Paule Constable’s often awe-inspiring lighting design blends into the theater itself.

Courtesy of producer Cameron Mackintosh, the new tour has received something of a face-lift – no offense to the title character – in order to pull some of its more fantastical elements closer to earth and make the central love triangle more believable. I’m not sure why anyone would be interested in adding subtlety and complexity to a musical that succeeded precisely because it lacked those qualities. But happily for super-Phans, the changes are largely cosmetic.

What makes the greatest impact in the production is not the searing pyrotechnics or the plummeting chandelier, which now drops straight down instead of swinging out, but the extraordinary stage pictures the tour’s design team have put together. In the third scene, the corps de ballet prepare for the next number in front of a grand mirror in a beautiful scene that looks like a Degas painting brought slowly to life. The opera’s offices, where so many dreary scenes based on so many dreary plot points unfold, is a blood-red Matisse splashed across three walls. Maria Bjornson’s costumes match their lush surroundings.

Chris Mann’s approach to the title character is frenetic to the point of distraction. His insistence on living at the edge of the character’s neurosis throws off his diction enough in several instances to make Charles Hart’s lyrics even more indecipherable than they were to begin with. But what’s more, that often strained neuroticism gives the campiest scenes in the show, especially the synth-laden title number, an unwelcome edge of absurdity.

As Christine, on the other hand, Katie Travis is a delight throughout.

Never does Travis overplay her character’s naivete and she hits her notes with an addictive soprano that floats in the perfect space between airiness and warmth. She saves nearly every exchange with Mann’s Phantom from veering into camp territory by imbuing their exchanges with a sensitivity that, frankly, the musical and its characters rarely inspire.

The story of “Phantom” – disfigured genius woos gifted ingenue only to lose her to cardboard rich dude – is less than compelling. But Lloyd Webber’s score, treacly though some Broadway habitues and other experts may rightly call it, contains more than its share of gorgeous melodies. From the opening chromatic organ chords embedded into the minds of a generation of theatergoers to the soaring themes of “Think of Me,” “Angel of Music” and “The Music of the Night,” the melodies are what has made this show what it is.

Those melodies remain in top form and, amid a smart and sumptuous visual redesign, sound as fresh as they did 12 years ago.


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