You can't quite restage the sexism out of "The Phantom of the Opera," but you can certainly distract us from it with retina-burning pyrotechnics.
That's pretty much the gist of Laurence Connor's darkened, coarsened and reshuffled version of "Phantom" that opened Friday night in Shea's Performing Arts Center to an adoring crowd. It was, true to its promise, as gaudy and overblown a theatrical spectacle as we are likely to see for some time.
Because of our proximity to its long-running Toronto version, Western New Yorkers have an unusually intimate familiarity with Andrew Lloyd Webber's 1986 musical about a maniacal figure seeking control over a woman who resists him.
Today, we might describe the Phantom as a member of the Incel movement, a bastion of toxic masculinity that wants to punish the world for the perceived slights of women against men.
Disfigured in visage and mind, the Phantom dwells in a subterranean lair beneath a Paris opera house, engineering an elaborate terrorist plot to ensnare the opera singer Christine, the object of his terrible affections. When this fails, he kidnaps her and forces her to commit to him by threatening to murder her boyfriend.
What an interesting guy.
Even so, she is filled with sympathy for her torturer, driven by an innate need to submit to him and to fulfill her task of "fixing" his tortured soul. The men who write our most popular stories have long imagined this to be the raison d'être of the female sex, and it has become so central to our literature – "Beauty and the Beast" written today would be seen as a direct endorsement of sexual abuse – that we don't even recognize its toxicity.
"Wandering child, so lost, so helpless, yearning for my guidance," the Phantom sings in "Angel of Music." "You resist, yet your soul obeys." And so, despite a few weak protests, she does.
To be fair to producer Cameron Mackintosh and Conor, this production does its best to portray the Phantom not as the smoldering sex symbol of yore, but as a truly dangerous character less worthy of adoration.
To that end, Quentin Oliver Lee gives us a lithe and energetic Phantom, more of a tortured young man than a embittered eminence. This stands in unsatisfying contrast to Eva Tavares' completely anodyne Christine, a papier-mâché figure with painted emotions but a beautiful voice. As Raoul, Christine's suitor, Jordan Craig is, as written, a very lifelike prop with an excellent singing voice.
It is likely, however, that crowds flocking to Phantom over the next two weeks are not too concerned about the outmoded ideas in the show. They're there for shock-and-awe gothic drama, beautifully rendered on spectacular sets and with eye-popping stage tricks, and soul-haunting music delivered by trained voices.
On all those counts, this production delivers. Paul Brown's remarkable sets, anchored by an enormous rotating cylinder complete with stairs that appear and disappear magically, are beautifully rendered.
A restaged version of "Masquerade," one of the show's weakest songs, is a visual delight replete with technicolor costumes by the late Maria Bjornson and well in keeping with the rococo too-muchness of the show.
The orchestra doesn't miss a note, and despite performances that could benefit from a bit more human emotion, Webber's most beautiful melodies – "Think of Me," "The Music of the Night" and "Angel of Music" – get the performances they deserve.
For those of us raised on "Phantom" and its genuinely addictive melodies, there's much to enjoy in this production. As long as we look at it through the right lens.
"Phantom of the Opera"
2.5 stars (out of four)
The play runs through May 6 in Shea's Buffalo Theatre, 646 Main St. Tickets are $37 to $82. Call 847-0850 or visit sheas.org.