Howard McGillin in <em>The Phantom of the Opera</em>
Howard McGillin in The Phantom of the Opera
© Joan Marcus

Howard McGillin has just taken over the title role in The Phantom of the Opera, and he's a revelation. Not at all the mesmerizing seducer that Michael Crawford and others have portrayed, Mr. McGillin's Phantom is a genuine lost soul, far closer to the passionate and mad monster of the classic Lon Chaney film. It's a brilliant performance, and it provides the vivid, dangerous center that this lush romantic musical adventure requires. I've never enjoyed Phantom more.

As you probably know, The Phantom of the Opera tells the story of Christine Daae, a young and inexperienced member of the Paris Opera company, and her capture by the mad, lonely, disfigured Phantom who haunts the Opera House. The Phantom engineers her debut as the company's prima donna, and then spirits her away to his lair beneath the theatre and beyond a mysterious lake. There, he reveals his love for her; but Christine is in love with the Opera's wealthy patron Raoul. The battle between Raoul and the Phantom for Christine's love brings the story to its inevitable climax.

The Phantom of the Opera is often disparaged as spectacle, but it's not: every extravagant effect--from the famous falling chandelier to the blinding fireballs that herald the Act Two climax--is absolutely necessary. The Phantom's tragic life is by definition operatic; it could not be contained in a musical less grand than this one. I realized during this, my third visit to Phantom, that this show is as much a concept musical as any of director Harold Prince's more respected collaborations with Stephen Sondheim: it's an opera about the world of opera, a world of grand illusions that terrorize and then destroy its gloriously mad hero.

Of course, the staging makes for splendidly spectacular theatre as well. The opening remains a marvel of theatrical know-how and timing; and the quick descent of the chandelier at the end of Act One, especially if you're sitting nearby, is utterly thrilling.

Sarah Pfisterer, who played the role of Christine at the performance I attended, sings Andrew Lloyd Webber's stunning score ("Think of Me," "Angel of Music," "All I Ask of You," "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again") beautifully. Gary Mauer is fine as a ruggedly handsome Raoul. Invaluable in smaller roles are Leila Martin (the mysterious Mme. Giry), Liz McCartney (the imperious opera diva), and Gerralyn Del Corso (the young dancer Meg).

Mr. McGillin, too-long absent from the Broadway stage, inhabits the role of the Phantom impressively. Near the end of "The Music of the Night," signifying the depth of his desire for Christine, Mr. McGillin's Phantom wears a look of pained, pleading sadness that is absolutely heartbreaking. Later, in Act Two, he takes command of the stage in the long opera scene ("Point of No Return"), breathing vigor and life into a sequence that had never before worked for me. This time, it rolled forward thrillingly, driving the show toward its exciting and exilirating--and terribly sad--conclusion. It may be nearly twelve years old, but with the expert Mr. McGillin on hand, The Phantom of the Opera is better than ever.