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Chicago by John Olson

The Phantom of the Opera
Cadillac Palace Theatre


Cooper Grodin and Julia Udine
Having observed its 25th anniversary a few years ago, Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera was deemed by producer Cameron Mackintosh to be in need of a makeover—and, it may be noted, a makeover that wouldn't require quite as many semis to move it from city to city on its many tours. A risky decision, perhaps, given that the one thing critics and fans could agree on about this show was that the production design by the late Maria Bjornson—complete with seemingly hundreds of candles and a life–size elephant—was stunning. So, the question at hand is: Is the new version significantly downscaled from the original? The answer is yes, though smartly, but there's bigger news. This new staging (the original score and libretto have not been altered) is arguably a better show than the original directed by Harold Prince.

Mackintosh brought in Laurence Connor, the director behind the well-received remounting of his Les Misérables, to re-conceive the show. Connor has made choices on all fronts that make this Phantom a sharper show with clearer storytelling. It is a more honest, self-aware take that shows he knows exactly what this piece is and what it isn't. It's not grand opera, not a serious love story, but rather a fun little horror story. This is not to say it's camp—it isn't—and Connor doesn't make fun of it even as he has fun with it. It's just that he doesn't take it so horribly seriously. There's lightness in his touch, a quicker pace in the acting and music that makes the piece less ponderous. Conductor Richard Carsey (who, in the interests of full disclosure, is a friend of mine) keeps the tempi bright and lively, avoiding the earlier practice of hitting every note (or so it seemed) with heavy accentuation. The score is no less lush—even more lush, I'd argue—in the way Connor, Carsey and musical supervisor John Rigby let the score breathe.

As to the visual design, it's true the elephant is gone, as is the big staircase of the masked ball. There are additions, though, that help the storytelling. The set has at its center a rotating turntable with a full-proscenium height cylinder atop it. It rotates to reveal rooms in the Opera House including the managers' office and Christine's dressing room, or the dark gray walls of the backstage area. We actually see how the Phantom and Christine descend to the lair: on a staircase of steps that magically appear and disappear. And we see the Phantom actually kill the stagehand, with the actor placed into the noose and apparently hanging by his neck moments later (though surviving to make the curtain call). There are still pyrotechnics on stage, and mist and a gondola on the lake—just not quite so many candles. The huge staircase for the ball is gone, but in its place are a series of ornate mirrors arranged in a semi-circle to create the illusion of greater depth. The first act closing chandelier crash? It happens a lot faster now, with soft plastic bits of faux "glass" falling on the audience underneath. Bjornson's original costume designs are mostly intact and, with a cast 36 and an orchestra of 17, this is no small production.

Casting choices and character concepts are no less smart. All the leads, starting with Cooper Grodin as the Phantom, have strong voices that can handle the semi-operatic demands of the score. Grodin seems a fairly youthful Phantom—pained more than evil. His Christine is Julia Udine, with a sweet soprano and ability to make Christine a vulnerable and sympathetic heroine who didn't ask for any of this. She didn't ask for the Phantom's vocal coaching or affection, didn't seek out stardom, and doesn't quite know what to do with the handsome Vicomte who woos her (the big voiced and darkly handsome Ben Jacoby).

Connor had some fun with his supporting characters as well. The venerable Linda Balgord plays Madame Giry with the threatening sternness of Rebecca's Mrs. Danvers. Jacquelynne Fontaine makes a statuesque and believable diva as Carlotta—no buffoon but all haughty superiority. The buffoonery is left to Frank Viveros as the tenor Piangi. Craig Bennett and Edward Staudenmeyer find just the right comic balance to make the managers satiric rather than broadly comic.

This new take on Phantom feels less like the blockbuster it still is and more just a good, solid entertainment that knows exactly what it wants to achieve and has a good time doing it. I doubt that fans of the Prince staging will object to anything here and those (like me) who were less enamored of the original may well like it better. Those new to the piece ought to find this staging everything they hoped it to be.

The Phantom of the Opera will be play the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph, through March 2, 2014. For ticket information, visit www.BroadwayinChicago,com, Ticketmaster or call 800-775-2000. For moe information on the tour, visit www.thephantomoftheopera.com/ustour.


Photo: Matthew Murphy

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-- John Olson



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