Michael Crawford’s place as the definitive, most indelible player of “The Phantom of the Opera” is still safe. But that has not stopped other Johnny-come-scaries from making a play for a piece of that “Phantom” title, including Derrick Davis.
A charismatic and gifted performer, Davis returned Friday to the Twin Cities for the press opening of “Phantom” at the Orpheum Theatre, a venue he played two years ago in director Laurence Connor’s refreshed staging of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1986 evergreen musical.
Stalking the stage and throwing fire in his half-mask, the actor grabbed us immediately with a showstopping performance of the title song. His performance was like a pull-push magnet — both hypnotically commanding and eerily repulsive. Davis is blessed with an exquisite tenor that beautifully conveys the Phantom’s hurts and hopes.
But his antihero also has a menacing underside, especially to those in the Paris Opera House who disobey his notes. Davis’ Phantom can freeze blood with just a look. And the character vocalizes his anger in frightfully disembodied tones.
The sexual politics of “Phantom” have been noted over the years — and have come into heightened focus post #MeToo. The Phantom, after all, is a disfigured character with musical talent who expresses his inner light through Christine Daaé (Emma Grimsley), a ballet girl he makes into an opera star, even if he murders folks and kidnaps her to get his way.
By casting Davis, who is African-American (and who follows in the footsteps of Norm Lewis, the first African-American Phantom on Broadway), the creative teams adds even more social complexity to the show that Lloyd Webber found to rhyme, in part, with his own life.
In 1986, the composer cast Sarah Brightman, then a young, emerging talent to whom he was married at the time, as his first Christine.
In Minneapolis, the musical unfurls on Paul Brown’s turntable set like a dark flower. Conducted with verve by Jamie Johns, the production has nary a false note. Grimsley’s Christine has a wide narrative arc, going from shy ballet dancer to self-assured star. On Friday, Grimsley sounded like a frightened bird being strangled on “Angel of Music,” her first big number. But she was moving and dynamic by the time she got to the title song, a duet with the Phantom.
The rest of the cast is funny and flawless as they sketch characters who swirl around the opera house. Jordan Craig plays Raoul, Christine’s childhood crush who now wants to rekindle their old flame, with both passion and foolhardiness. He is touching when as Raoul he tries to go up against Davis’ Phantom — an amateur against a pro.
One of the hardest things to pull off in the show (and one that has always caused concern about actors messing up their vocal cords) is the vocal trick in which the Phantom makes Carlotta, the reigning opera diva, croak. But Trista Moldovan does it with ease. Her Carlotta is egotistical and unbearable, which makes her comeuppance not only earned but quite funny.
The cast includes David Benoit as Monsieur Firmin, Rob Lindley as Monsieur André, Susan Moniz as Madame Giry and Phumzile Sojola as opera buffo featherweight Ubaldo Piangi.
“Phantom” returns to the Twin Cities at the holidays — a time when other ghosts are beckoning onstage. Over at the Guthrie, four evocative spirits guide the action in Lauren Keating’s resonant production of “A Christmas Carol.” Maybe these spirits are trying to tell us something about listening to our better angels. Whatever their messages, both shows are engaging and entertaining.