I hadn't planned on seeing any musicals while I was out in Vegas, but Vegas shows are scheduled in such a way that you can usually catch two a night, and, I ask you, how was a theater queen to resist?
So, as I was walking back to my hotel after seeing the Cirque du Soleil show The Beatles: Love (look for my review sometime soon), I found myself cutting through The Venetian, home to Phantom: The Las Vegas Spectacular. It just so happened that the 9:30 show was about to start. I figured what the hell.
As I entered the $40-million custom-built theater, I wondered how different the show would be from when I saw it 20 years ago on Broadway. Phantom takes a lot of flack from theater queens: this semester it was my students' number-one choice for the most overrated musical. People continually decry it as an all-spectacle, no-substance show. Well, these people would likely not be placated by the Vegas production, which takes the spectacle to the nth degree. The theater has been built to resemble the Paris Opera House, with tiers of box seats containing elegantly dressed mannequins. They've also added some superfluous pyrotechnics to Vegas things up a bit.
But the real star of the space is the multi-layer chandelier with three large sections that orbit the audience like spaceships, then join up to take their place for the chandelier's climactic fall. I've never been one for technical theatrics, but even I was impressed. I remember being disappointed with the anticlimactic Broadway chandelier. It falls very slowly, then arcs toward the stage, where you can clearly see the stagehands waiting onstage to catch it. The Vegas version falls in a genuinely exciting fashion: very quickly, right on top of the audience, followed by a blackout.
As for the show itself, well, it's famously been cut down to accommodate the impatient Vegas crowds, although the night I saw it, it ran about ten minutes longer than the show's advertised length of 95 minutes. And, you know what, the show works better shorter. Sure, there's not as much character development, but is that really what we see a show like Phantom for? I found myself genuinely moved by the Phantom's plight, mostly because of the moving performance of standby Michael Lackey as the masked one. Lackey can actually sing the part, unlike original star Michael Crawford, and he brought a stirring sense of pathos to the role, keenly articulating the loneliness and tortured nature of the character. The other performances were professional but perfunctory. Kristi Holden as Christine Daae was vocally letter-perfect, but a bit lacking in the acting department. [CORRECTION: I received a note from Ms. Holden, and apparently she was not on the night I saw the show, but rather the alternate Christine, Erin Stewart. My apologies to Ms. Holden.] Andrew Ragone as Raoul had a similar great voice/flat acting dichotomy.
So, poo poo Phantom if you want. I actually kind of enjoyed myself, although I still think the show's lyrics are alternately meaningless and puerile, sometimes both at the same time. But as a spectacle qua spectacle, it certainly beats the hell out of Cats.