Review: The Phantom of the Opera by University of Kentucky Opera Theatre

The Phantom (Jacob Waid) sings “Music of the Night” to Christine (Rebecca Farley). Herald-Leader staff photo by Rich Copley.

The administrators of the rights to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera have gone to great lengths to make sure the student productions they authorize are student productions.

No faculty appearances, recent grad cameos or guest artist ringers in the top spots. The performers in these shows have to be enrolled students.

And the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre’s production of Phantom, which opened Friday night at the Lexington Opera House and runs for 10 more performances through Oct. 14, succeeds because of the students. The chandelier could defy gravity, the boat could not float and there could be nary a spark on the stage, and this still would be a great production because of the student singers and actors that grace the stage.

Lexington has been waiting nearly 25 years for this show, and it got a good one.

A student production was pretty much the only way the Bluegrass was going to see Phantom any time soon. It is still running on Broadway, so producers aren’t granting rights to independent theaters to produce it, pro or otherwise. And none of the national tours of the show have been physically or economically feasible to present at the Lexington Opera House. But a couple years ago, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s group decided to authorize the show for high school and college student performances, in large part as a gesture of support for arts education.

Fortunately for Lexington-area theater fans, the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre got the show, and as is the troupe’s habit, they have done it up right with a $300,000 production that comes with all the frills Phantom fans have come to expect including ginormous set pieces, cool features and pyrotechnics.

But we need look no further than Michael Bay movies to know productions can be big and flashy but have no soul. That’s where Phantom director Richard Kagey and the triple-cast performers come in.

Friday’s opening night cast, scheduled to perform again Saturday night, Thursday night and the Oct. 14 matinee, featured Jacob Waid plumbing the depths of the Phantom’s story for a heartbreaking performance and Rebecca Farley in a stunning turn as Christine. When she sings, “And through his music my soul began to soar,” her voice takes flight. Both nail all of their signature tunes, Think of Me for Christine and Music of the Night for Phantom, along with Elliot Lane who sings a gorgeous All I Ask of You as Raoul, Christine’s true love.

They are supported by a sometimes brilliant ensemble including Arianna Afshari and Evan LeRoy Johnson as the Paris Opera’s buffoonish leading soprano and tenor and Daniel Koehn and Jermaine Brown Jr. as the exhausted company directors, all of who skillfully make the show funnier than we remember it or thought it would be.

Here’s the real striking thing: A lot of the principal cast, including all three Christines (rounded out by Elizabeth Maurey and Monica Dewey) are undergraduates. Waid is a junior. This is in a company that leans so heavily on graduate students it had to establish an annual show specifically designed to give undergraduates a chance to perform. Here, they are shining in UK Opera’s biggest production ever. Some may tut, “Well this is a musical, not a real opera,” but it is a musical with extremely serious singing from the solos to intricate ensembles such as Prima Donna.

Phantom is a big show with lots of moving parts and in this production, they don’t always move great together. Quite a bit of dialogue was lost to blasts of orchestra — which overall sounded splendid under John Nardolillo’s baton — and the microphone system let singers down numerous times, particularly Lane, who frequently sounded like he was singing over a cell phone connection. There were also a number of times performers looked lost, like the doubles for Phantom and Christine crossing the bridge for the first time.

One big thing that worked very well is the dance ensemble with impressive synchronicity under second-year dance instructor Susie Thiel.

If ever there was a critic-proof production in Lexington, this is it. Before opening, this Phantom sold most of the tickets for its 11 show run (a performance at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 14 was added Friday) at the 866-seat Opera House. Those fans can turn out assured they will get their money’s worth.

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