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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at the Majestic


  Sierra Boggess and Norm Lewis/ Ph: Matthew Murphy

I’ve interviewed Norm Lewis only once. It was in the summer of 2005 during an open press rehearsal for the Shakespeare in the Park revival of Galt MacDermot and John Guare’s musical adaptation of Two Gentlemen of Verona. At that point, Lewis was well known in the theater community as an extraordinarily talented actor and singer who had yet to find a breakout role or achieve significant fame. Virtually all of his Broadway roles had been in flops like Side Show, The Wild Party and Amour. While interviewing Lewis, I asked what his dream role would be and he immediately answered the Phantom of the Opera. I don’t recall what I said in reply, but I know what I wanted to say: “Really? Have you seen the show? I think you can do better.”

It turns out that for years, Lewis had made no secret of his desire to play the Phantom, as detailed in a New York Times feature article that was published in late April right before Lewis had entered the musical, the longest-running in Broadway history (11,000 performances and counting). However, at this point, isn’t Lewis too well known to be playing the Phantom? Lewis still hasn’t won a Tony but he did co-star with Audra McDonald in The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. Over the past decade, while Phantom has played to an audience made up entirely of international tourists and school groups, the title role has been played mostly by Hugh Panaro, Lewis’ Side Show co-star. (Panaro has not done a new show on Broadway since the ill-fated vampire musical Lestat in 2006. Anyone who saw Lestat can understand why.)

So what attracted Lewis to the role, other than the distinction of being the first African-American to play the role on Broadway? (I’ve heard that Adam Pascal of Rent also wants to play the Phantom.) It’s actually not that large a role. Christine is onstage far more often than the Phantom. And though the role can be a grueling workout vocally, and the Phantom is an eccentric, controlling, supposedly brilliant hermit, he is not a deep or complex character. Phantom, after all, is unabashed romantic melodrama. In other words, Lewis is too special, too nuanced an actor to play the Phantom.

As Cameron Macintosh told The New York Times, the Phantom must display “real steel, and that’s not something Norm usually has to play.” Or as director Hal Prince put it, “You have to be at a high level of emotion from the moment you’re onstage … and you have to stay at that height the entire time you’re on.” And there’s the issue of Lewis’ voice. Rich, distinctive and beautiful as his voice may be, Lewis is a baritone and the Phantom is a high tenor role. He struggles to reach that high, sustained note in “Music of the Night” (“Let your soul take you where you long to be”) and can’t pull it off.

And so, it is unfortunate to report that Lewis is unmistakably miscast in Phantom for reasons that have nothing to do with his skin color. (Perhaps Lewis’ casting will lead to more minority actors playing the role.) Panaro’s acting may have been lightweight but his singing was effortless. Lewis simply cannot handle the songs, and the score has not been transposed to better suit him. In terms of his acting, Lewis is again out of place, trying to give the Phantom a depth that, all things considered, is not welcome. Finally, while the Phantom is supposed to be older than Christine, the fact that Lewis once played father to his Christine (Sierra Boggess) does make their pairing all the more creepy.

Lewis’ arrival in the show is likely to back many New York-based theatergoers who have avoided the show for the past quarter century. More likely than not, they will be happy for Lewis’ achievement but hope to see him next time around in a show that better suits his abilities. (For the record, Boggess is a terrific Christine. The rest of the cast is, well, competent.) But what of the tourists who keep Phantom running day in and day out? No matter what you may think of Phantom, it has always been nothing if not a well-maintained machine, down to the very last detail and chorus girl. The casting of Lewis threatens to break up that machine in all its dependable monotony. Chances are that once Lewis leaves, Panaro will return (or someone like him) and this will be a thing of the past and the masquerade will continue for another quarter century.


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