‘What a night, what a crowd!’: The return of ‘The Phantom of the Opera’
By Austin Riffelmacher
As the chandelier rose in the Majestic Theater on Oct. 22, people cheered, some stood as “The Phantom of the Opera,” the longest running show in Broadway history, resumed its 34-year reign.
The re-opening night audience included the musical’s composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, producer Cameron Mackintosh, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-NY.
Speaking to the audience on stage prior to curtain, Schumer affirmed, “With ‘Phantom’ re-opening tonight, we know New York is back, bigger and better.”
Bigger and better remained the theme of the evening. After time in the rehearsal studio, the first for the show since late December 1987, everything from the cast and orchestra to the scenery and costumes, felt fresh and alive.
The stars of this musical have, and will always be, the intersection of Lloyd Webber’s score, Maria Bjornson’s designs, and the late Hal Prince’s adroit direction.
After the past two years, all three seemed so precious to the audience containing mostly “Phans” of the show.
The original London production was abruptly ripped out, by Mackintosh’s own doing, of Her Majesty’s Theatre in July 2020 and re-opened this July in a version that scales down Prince’s and Bjornson’s original vision. What seemed most blasphemous to “Phans” was the reduction of the orchestra, going from 27 musicians – to 14.
New York’s “Phantom” retains its 28 musicians, and they deservedly received their own ovation. They are resounding and are the best (and biggest) orchestra on Broadway!
Ben Crawford currently inhabits the mask as the Phantom. As the disfigured opera ghost obsessing over the ingenue singer Christine Daae, Crawford has become incredibly confident physically and vocally since he took over the role in 2018.
Impressively, his vocals evoke the baritone Phantoms of the ’90s, while sounding equally as
contemporary as his tenor peers.
The role calls for Crawford to perform at the highest levels of emotions, but the actor looked extremely comfortable, even on a night where it felt like the world was watching.
Confidence is not quite as strong in Meghan Picerno’s Christine. Picerno was discovered by Prince when he directed her as Cunegonde in Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide.”
That might come as a surprise to some audience members as Picerno’s voice is very thin for someone from the opera world. There were several moments of the score, particularly when it called for pianissimo, that the soprano was not even on pitch. For such a thrilling evening, Picerno turned in a shockingly boring performance.
As Raoul, Christine’s lover, John Riddle plays the character with refreshing compassion and reminds us why – spoiler alert – Christine doesn’t choose the name on the marquee at the end.
The most stellar cast member in “Phantom” right now is Raquel Suarez Groen as opera diva Carlotta Guidicelli. With an amazing voice, and a blend of humor and viciousness, she is by far the best I’ve seen to play the role in New York.
The audience’s response to the show was incredibly overwhelming. It’s amazing how beloved and pertinent the show remains to theater-goers even as smaller and more contemporary shows like “Hamilton” and “Dear Evan Hansen” embody the favor of the moment. Audibly, it’s just so unique.
The reason the show has succeeded and continues to thrill is its absolute theatricality. No commercial musical, perhaps except for “The Lion King,” celebrates genuine live theater – the recreation of a boat journey to an underground labyrinth, the Masquerade ball on a grand staircase at the top of Act Two, and, of course, the infamous chandelier that rises and falls over the heads of the audience.
The Prologue/Overture remains one of the greatest tour-de-forces in any Broadway musical.
However, the most epic moment of the evening happened after the curtain went down on the
performance. As the audience was ushered out of the theater, Lloyd Webber himself DJ ’ed in the middle of a closed West 44th Street.
The evening made a clear statement.
There is no New York City without Broadway, and there is no Broadway without “Phantom.”