The Phantom of the Opera has been playing on Broadway since 1988, and most people involved with theater have likely either seen it in New York or on tour. What's special about this current national tour, playing now at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati, is that it's a huge departure from the original staging and design of the show which has long been associated with the material. This fresh approach, along with worthwhile performances, will bring new perspective to fans of the musical, and is worthwhile for people new to the stage adaptation.
The Phantom of the Opera is the story of a mysterious figure who haunts the Paris Opera House circa 1881. He tutors a young woman in the chorus named Christine Daae and attempts to win her love, but is foiled when Christine falls for her childhood friend Raoul, a wealthy patron of the opera. The Phantom seeks his revenge and stops at nothing to have Christine for his own.
Andrew Lloyd Webber's music is coupled with lyrics by Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe. Although the composer surely has his critics, and has often been accused of stealing from many classical composers (as well as himself), there is little doubt that he provides beautiful, lush melodies for his shows, and Phantom is no exception. The lyrics are, if not exceptional, suitable and acceptable. Songs from the show including "Music of the Night," "All I Ask of You," and the title number are beloved by millions around the world, and several other numbers serve the show quite well in addition. Unfortunately, in a few songs, the multi-layered musical lines render the competing lyrics mostly unintelligible to those new to the score. The book for Phantom is credited to Lloyd Webber and Stilgoe. Their take on the classic story effectively mixes romance, drama, comedy, and suspense, but is short on character development.
Much more so than most shows, The Phantom of the Opera has been associated with its original director, Hal Prince, and his staging. Thus, a version featuring a unique look, feel, and presentation of the material provides opportunities for theatergoers to experience the show in a different way. Tour director Laurence Conner supplies a more intimate staging of the show. His work results in wonderfully smooth scene transitions, an extremely clear communication of the story, and effective humor. Mr. Conner also skillfully takes cues off of the lyrics for some of his directorial choices. Some mainstays of the original blocking are gone and may shock fans of the show, but for each missing item, there's a new wrinkle which brings added depth or understanding. The limited choreography by Scott Ambler, also a departure from the original, is apt and on best display during "Masquerade." The orchestrations by David Cullen and Lloyd Webber are attractive and fitting, and the large pit orchestra for this tour is capably conducted by Richard Carsey.
The other primary changes are in the physical production. The handsome set design by Paul Brown is significantly smaller than the Broadway version, but uses technological advances from the last twenty-six plus years to compensate for being scaled down. Despite being less grandiose in size, this set still has ornate details, an impressive variety and functionality, and allows for the needed stage magic and theatricality. Again, fans will miss some of the set pieces, but the new designs are notable in their own right. Paule Constable's stark lighting incorporates shadows and multi-angled spots very effectively. Christine Rowland has adapted the late Maria Bjornson's original costumes with some suitable updates.
Cooper Grodin's portrayal of the Phantom accentuates the character's darker side, and he sings with great emotion and texture in his voice. As Christine, Julia Udine is extremely endearing, sings with a pleasant tone and clear diction, and gives the character some needed depth. Ben Jacoby is sufficient vocally as Raoul, but comes across as a bit too melodramatic in a difficult role. Effectively providing much comic relief are Jacquelynne Fontaine (a deliciously self-indulgent Carlotta), Frank Viveros (a pompous Piangi), Edward Staudenmayer (an overwhelmed Monsieur Andre), and Tony nominee Brad Oscar (a clueless Monsieur Firmin). Broadway and touring vet Linda Balgord is appropriately staunch as Madame Giry, and Hannah Florence is a sympathetic Meg. The entire cast displays solid timing and vocals.
The Phantom of the Opera remains a beautifully designed and directed musical, even if the staging and visuals are brand new and vary from what theatergoers are accustomed. The show contains melodic and memorable songs and a gripping story, and the current touring cast is up to the challenge in this re-imagining of the now-classic musical. The Phantom of the Opera continues through May 11, 2014, at the Aronoff Center. Tickets can be ordered by calling (800) 982-2787. For more information on the touring production, visit www.thephantomoftheopera.com/ustour.