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Chicago by John Olson

The Phantom of the Opera
Cadillac Palace Theatre

Phantom of the Opera
John Cudia and Sara Jane Ford
According to the press kit, the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Cameron MacIntosh/Harold Prince musical version of this tale is the most commercially successful entertainment of the twentieth century and, with the show having just passed its twenty-first birthday since its October 1986 London premiere, any efforts to critique the writing would be, at best, tardy. The issue at hand is if audiences for this particular tour, which has been wandering around North America for seemingly as long as the Israelites wandered the desert searching for the promised land, is giving audiences the goods.

Vocally, this cast is probably one of the better ones, with John Cudia as the Phantom, Sara Jean Ford as Christine and Greg Mills as Raoul displaying impressive voices and acting their characters convincingly. Cudia's a charismatic and menacing Phantom, and manages an appropriate balance of the character's menace and humanity. Ms. Ford gives Christine a bit more substance than the script provides and she's especially effective in the second act when she comes into her own by agreeing to bait the Phantom into entrapment. Mills does what he can with Raoul, and together with Cudia and Ford, real tension is created in the climax.

Though equally good singers, the supporting cast is not as successful. Their execution is frequently sloppy. It had been 13 or 14 years since I'd seen a performance of this tour, and from the looks of things, it's been about that long since the company's been visited by a decent assistant director. Timing is off, like in the way the performers feign surprise at the Phantom's words split seconds before they hear those words, or when they're not given sufficient time to react to the discovery of Piangi's murder before the next hurried scene change. The sound system makes the orchestra sound mostly pre-recorded (though it's not), and the vocals come off rather tinny.

Most disturbingly, though, the company seems to be in disagreement over the tone the piece should establish. At times it feels like the intention of the production is to play Phantom like the opera bouffe of the story's era - the sort of comic opera it satirizes played by performers who are never expected to act as well as they sing. Whether or not you believe Lloyd Webber's Phantom to be good writing, it's essential that the performers do that they invest it with all the emotion the writers intended. At the heart of the piece are significant stakes: complete isolation from normal human contact or involvement in a committed romantic relationship. Lloyd Webber, MacIntosh and Prince may have had insufficient confidence in their story or themes - choosing to woo audiences with a Barnum-like scale as much as emotion but the actors can't be concerned with that. They have to believe in the characters and the stakes without question in order to get us to go along on this journey.

That said, the brilliant scenic and costume design of the late Maria Bjornson are as stunning as ever. Her whimsical yet realistic-enough sets bring the opulence of the Paris Opera - on stage, backstage in the offices and in the ornate lobby to life. Together with the lighting design of Andrew Bridge, which creates the Phantom's underground lair so eerily, the visual design of the production must surely be among the very best in the history of musical theater and is reason enough to see the show. Just as we'd never think of removing from exhibition a masterwork of painting, it's a happy state of affairs that Bjornson's work can still be seen on a stage. The Phantom of the Opera will be performed at the Cadillac Palace Theatre (151 West Randolph St.) through Saturday, January 5, 2008. The performance schedule is as follows: November 6 - January 5: Tuesday 7:30 p.m., Wednesday 2 & 7:30 p.m., Thursday 7:30 p.m., Friday 8 p.m., Saturday 2 & 8 p.m., Sunday 2 p.m.

Exceptions: Additional performances on Friday, November 22 at 2 p.m., Sunday, December 30 at 7:30 p.m., Monday, December 31 at 7:30 p.m., Friday, January 4 at 2 p.m. No performances on Thursday, November 22 (Thanksgiving), Tuesday, December 25 (Christmas Day) or Tuesday, January 1 (New Year's Day).

Tickets for The Phantom of the Opera range in price from $28 to $85 and are available at all Broadway In Chicago Box Offices (151 W. Randolph St., 24 W.Randolph St. and 18 W. Monroe St.), by calling Ticketmaster at (312) 902-1400,online at ticketmaster.com, and at all Ticketmaster ticket centers.


Photo: Carol Rosegg

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area


-- John Olson



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