I know, I know: It’s not like NO African-Americans go to Broadway shows at the Orpheum. There were more than a few at Friday night’s performance of “The Phantom of The Opera,” which I was blessed to attend as part of the theatre’s media night.
Going into the theatre, I was only vaguely familiar with the plot. I don’t think it gives away too much to say that the story revolves around a Parisian opera house that’s “haunted” by a disfigured musical genius who craves the love of a talented young opera singer. All of it is set to music that has won all kinds of awards that make “Phantom” one of the most beloved Broadway musicals of all time.
But just in case you are on the fence about whether to take in the show before it leaves on Dec. 10, I came out of the theatre with at least five:
• The Phantom is a brother, Part 1: The title role is performed by Derrick Davis, and he is absolutely spectacular. On a stage literally chock-full of unbelievably gifted opera singers, somehow he still is able to rise above his castmates without overshadowing them. His tenor is pure. He fills the role with palpable emotion. His performance is simply brilliant and would be worth the price of admission alone.
• The Phantom is a brother, Part 2: No, seriously. Do you know when you’ll get to see another African-American man headline a major Broadway show in Memphis? No? Some things you gotta check out just BECAUSE you don’t see them every day.
• The cast: Sure, Davis is reason enough to check out the show alone. But none of his castmates are slouches either. There’s a reason The Phantom of the Opera has won so many accolades — it is a brilliantly written, composed and crafted musical. And in the hands of these talented actors and musicians, it leaps off the stage.
• The set and the effects: I have no idea what the set and special effects were like before this production. But I do know that technology has made its mark. When I wasn’t mesmerized by the performances, I was mesmerized watching the set transform and morph from an opera house to a waterfront to the Phantom’s dungeon-like lair. This production’s clever use of screens and projections add dimensions and layers to set the scene and the mood. And there are portions of the show that take place OFF the stage — including one segment involving the iconic chandelier. It is an immersive experience.
• The Phantom is a brother, Part 3: I’m delighted that so many movies, TV shows and stage productions are casting people of color in roles we haven’t seen them in before. That’s progress. But it’s also impossible to ignore the subtexts that come up when we see an African American man in this particular role of the Phantom.
During Act II, we learn more about The Phantom: That he’s a brilliant scholar, architect, inventor, magician and composer — born with a terrifyingly disfigured face. He was caged and mistreated until he escaped to live in hiding under the Opera House, where you can add “madness” to his list of attributes.
As I watched the Phantom’s backstory, and having already been absorbed into Davis’ performance, I couldn’t help but think about it: A black man, brilliant in a multitude of ways, unwelcome in society because “he’s scary.” And yes, I know the “scariness” is supposed to come from how his face looks. But for me, there was no escaping the subtext of a brilliant-but-scary black man — how his craving for love and acceptance drives him insane — and society (or at least other characters in the play) want to destroy him.
Now, I know Andrew Lloyd Webber didn’t write that in there, but that’s what happens when these roles are inhabited by actors of color. And let me just say it once more: Derrick Davis is BRILLIANT in the role — if you go, you’ll be cheering at the end of the performance as well.
Phantom does come to Memphis every few years or so. But who knows when it will return, though? Or if it will have this awesome cast headlined by a brilliantly talented African American in the title role?
That’s why you should go check out THIS production while it’s here. You won’t regret it.