CRAZED GENIUS OR SPOILED BOY? (Review:’The Phantom of the Opera’)

I’m a  Les Mis gal: Battles and revolutions, urchins and rebels dying at the barricades come before fantasy and romance.

A recording by the original cast was my introduction to “The Phantom of the Opera”. I thought “Music of the Night”  among the most beautiful melodies to have come out of London’s West End. I hated “All I Ask of You” – and still do. It’s a transplant of those romance novels where  damsels faint and hyperventilate every other page.

Any nascent interest crumbled in the musical with a televised performance by Sarah Brightman, whose mugging sparked guffaws when she probably went to get our tears rolling..

But a sister recommended the “spectacle”. (See disclosure, below.) Another raved about the star of the first Philippine staging. And then a friend offered a birthday gift that could not be refused. So it was off to the Cultural Center of the Philippines for a Saturday matinee conducted by Adrian Bendt, associate conductor and the production’s concertmaster.

Gilt & Baubles

The scenery in “Phantom” comes in two categories: grand and grander. After all, it takes place — above and underground — at the Opéra National de Paris, that very Napoleonic masterpiece also called the Palais Garnier for its designer, Charles Garnier.  Composer Lloyd-Webber notes that Gaston Leroux wrote the novel when “the Opera House boasted over fifteen hundred employees and had its own stables of white horses for the opera troupe underneath the forecourt.”

The musical features a chandelier with more character than a dozen chorus girls.There’s a bachelor pad from Hades, accessed through an underground “river”. There’s even a mechanical elephant.

The Opéra National de Paris, setting for “Phantom”; staircase and lobby. Photos from Wikimedia Commons“

It’s a chiaroscuro landscape, a long dark night of the soul magnified by mirrors and every glittering bauble available in the 1880s.

The Phantom is musical genius. He is also a mad chemist. He is a subterranean creature who pops out from friezes dozens of meters above floor level. And he probably has an army of goblins doing clean-up work in his watery estate.

The Phantom takes Christine to his underground lair. Photo taken from the musical’s producers.

Leroux was a self-styled muckraking “journalist”. The source novel‘s prologue refers to  a  “dreadful and veracious story”.

The print version bombed, but Phantom leaped onstage and then on reel as grand guignol, a feast of the macabre pre-dating Freddy Krueger.

Producer Cameron Mackintosh and Lloyd-Webber have left little of the horror, turning Phantom into gothic romance at turns shrill and lyrical, with a libretto that could bring on diabetes.

Every Father’s Nightmare

On the scare scale, the musical Phantom is a GQ model compared to Leroux’s creation, as shared by scenery man Joseph Buquet:

“He is extraordinarily thin and his dress-coat hangs on a skeleton frame. His eyes are so deep that you can hardly see the fixed pupils. You just see two big black holes, as in a dead man’s skull. His skin, which is stretched across his bones like a drumhead, is not white, but a nasty yellow. His nose is so little worth talking about that you can’t see it side-face; and THE ABSENCE of that nose is a horrible thing TO LOOK AT. All the hair he has is three or four long dark locks on his forehead and behind his ears.” (Biquet dies for being a tattle-tale.)

Jonathan Roxmouth as the Phantom

Since theater-goers have finer sensibilities than Krueger groupies, the musical Phantom was gussied up, even given a dashing half-mask. The man’s perpetually dressed for a masquerade ball. The genius may forgets meals while at work on an avant garde opera, but he obviously spares time for grooming.

A mother horrified by her disfigured child abandons him to a circus of freaks. The monster, however, is gifted with a voice that even his rival, Raoul, describes as

“…absolutely and heroically sweet, more gloriously insidious, more delicate, more powerful, in short, more irresistibly triumphant”

It is psycho-babble that drives this musical — at times towards disaster. The libretto presents Christine a sleep-walking twit with very strong Daddy issues; a kid with self esteem issues, jailbait for  wolves.

The Phantom is pure bad news, the kind of man who alternates between beating a partner black and blue and groveling for forgiveness.

        “Damn you! You little prying Pandora! You little demon! Is this what you wanted to see?
        Curse you! You little lying Delilah! You little viper! Now you cannot ever be free!
        Damn you! Curse you! Stranger than you dreamt it Can you even dare to look? Or bear to think of me?
        This loathsome gargoyle who burns in hell, but secretly, yearns for heaven, secretly, secretly … But, Christine, fear can turn to love. You’ll learn to see, to find the man behind the monster, this repulsive carcass … who seems a beast, but secretly, dreams of beauty…”

It’s classic dependency crap, the kind of drama that hooks bumbling would-be messiahs who, more often than not, end up with very dead objects of salvation. It makes you snort but it’s a real enough scenario. Just scan the tabloids.

Comic wit

Librettist Hart succeeds when tackling the bigger social issues.

“Masquerade! Paper faces on parade … Masquerade! Hide your face, so the world will never find you!… Masquerade! Every face a different shade … Masquerade! Look around – there’s another mask behind you! Flash of mauve, splash of puce …Fool and king, ghoul and ghost …Green and black, queen and priest …Trace of rouge, face of beast …Faces … take your turn, take a ride on the merry-go-round … in an inhuman race …”

It’s a gem of a song, a piquant mix of cynicism and contempt and malevolence, wrapped up in a lilting music-box tune.

Unfortunately, the choreography here was disappointing, too static and studied to bring out the song’s amoral cheer.

The scene following Christine’s disappearance is a great parody of news headlines and cynical marketing men. (Leroux the novelist isn’t as much fun; he takes himself too seriously.)

“Notes” and “Prima Donna” are sharp musical satires. It’s a pity that the voices of Anthony Downing (Raoul), James Borthwick (Monsieur Fermin), Jason Ralph (Monsieur Andre), Andrea Creighton (Carlota) Thabiso Masemene (Piangi), Rebecca Spenser (Madame Giry) and Cat Lane (Meg Giry) combine for a very ragged, raucous harmony that makes the song intelligible.

But Borthwick and Ralph are genuinely funny in their duets, as are Creighton and Mesemene as the huffy stars of the Opera. Spenser shines as Mme Giry, Cassandra of the Opera, reluctant sympathizer of the Phantom. Her prim persona throws into relief the ludicrous pretensions of the Opera managers and their spoiled stars.


It is in the realm of hearts where the libretto takes a tumble. This is especially true of Christine:

“Raoul, I’ve been there …to his world of unending night …to a world where the daylight dissolves into darkness …

darkness … Raoul, I’ve seen him …Can I ever forget that sight? Can I ever escape from that face? So distorted, deformed …

It was hardly a face, in that darkness …darkness … But his voice filled my spirit with a strange, sweet sound …

In that night, there was music in my mind …And through music, my soul began to soar …And I heard as I’ve never heard before!

Claire Lyon as Christine

The words frame a single perspective — Christine’s musical ambitions. This is what makes “Phantom” the musical so frustrating.

Thank god, Claire Lyon refuses to play a dumb doll. Even when she’s supposed to be under the Phantom’s thrall, Lyon projects an internal struggle that delves into Leroux’s moral themes.

Lyon’s doesn’t just stun with the purity of her high notes. Her depth allows the novel’s real tale, of empathy borne of shared grief, to transcend the saccharine lyrics.

This is an actor’s musical. From start to finish, they teeter on the brink of bathos.

The musical Christine is self-absorbed till the end. Lyon summons the strength of a woman making the best of a living nightmare, with the capacity to see both where pain and rage stems from — and the determination not to let this get in the way of freedom.

Lyon’s acting manages the impressive feat of infusing the libretto with the meat of Leroux’s fable:

“With horror!” she said. “That is the terrible thing about it. He fills me with horror and I do not hate him… He has carried me off for love!…He has imprisoned me with him, underground, for love!…But he respects me: he crawls, he moans, he weeps!…And, when I stood up, Raoul, and told him that I could only despise him if he did not…”

At the unmasking:

He had let go of me at last and was dragging himself about on the floor, uttering terrible sobs. And then he crawled away like a snake, went into his room, closed the door and left me alone to my reflections. Presently I heard the sound of the organ; and then I began to understand Erik’s contemptuous phrase when he spoke about Opera music. What I now heard was utterly different from what I had heard up to then. His Don Juan Triumphant (for I had not a doubt but that he had rushed to his masterpiece to forget the horror of the moment) seemed to me at first one long, awful, magnificent sob. But, little by little, it expressed every emotion, every suffering of which mankind is capable…What more can I tell you, dear? You now know the tragedy. It went on for a fortnight–a fortnight during which I lied to him. My lies were as hideous as the monster who inspired them; but they were the price of my liberty.”

Jonathan Roxmouth, 25, astounds as the Phantom. His voice is equal to any previous Phantom (admittedly, viewed only via youtube), with more nuance than Ramin Karimloo, star of the 25th anniversary show. It is his acting, however, that sweeps the audience away.

This Phantom is willful and arrogant. Yet, there is no petulance. When he toys with the Opera fat cats, hurling one impossible demand after another, it is with a deft touch of irony. He convinces us that it’s the logical response to a world that has never listened to his appeals.

Downing’s Raoul is all puffed up posturing. (His voice isn’t that affecting, anyway). His attack on the role relegates Christine into a prop for a pissing contest with the Phantom. It’s one thing to be bewildered by a sweetheart that hears voices. This Raoul skirts so close to contempt, you wonder why he doesn’t just leave Christine to the Phantom’s tender mercies. The hectoring and badgering foretells worse things for Christine once the threat of the Phantom no longer exists.

It is left to Lyon and Roxmouth to carry the plot’s emotional core and save the night.

Roxmouth paints a mesmerizing portrait that is all shades of gray. His Phantom is ruthless, but a desperate man driven nihilism. Mme Giry’s reluctance to paint him into a corner makes perfect sense. This Phantom, too, is infused with a stillness — not one extraneous gesture — that makes his episodes of rage all the more explosive.

Roxmouth’s Phantom is no crazed Pygmalion. He honors Christine, agonizes at the choices he makes, making it easier for us to understand her ambivalence. It takes the musical stage to unveil the power of  “Point of No Return”. Lyon and Roxmouth generate so much heat they empty the hall of oxygen. Then Roxmouth’s hands start trembling. Even knowing how the play ends, it is a heart-stopping moment, a gesture that, sans words, distills this tragic tale.

Roxmouth never gets self-indulgent. His discipline and focus exist solely in the service of the Phantom. Every breath and sigh, every twitch and turn, every note draws you into his battered heart.

At the end of the musical, there was moment of silence as the audience crawled out from the dark pit. And then a roar swept through the CCP main theater, an ovation that refused to end even when the curtain dropped the last time and the exit lights came ablaze.

Jonathan Roxmouth, from his Facebook page

(*Disclosure: Sister Mary Ann Espina is a pianist for the Philippine run of Phantom. We paid the full ticket price.)


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