"The Phantom of the Opera" Gets a Subtly Remade Face

Written By Sun-Times Wire Posted: 01/16/2014, 12:43am

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Cooper Grodin and Julia Udine star in "The Phantom of the Opera" at the Cadillac Palace Theatre.

Cooper Grodin and Julia Udine star in “The Phantom of the Opera” at the Cadillac Palace Theatre.

When: Through March 2
Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph
Tickets: $23-$115
Info: (800) 775-2000; www.BroadwayInChicago.com
Run time: 2 hours and 35 minutes with one intermission

For the 130 million people (literally) who have seen the original production of “The Phantom of the Opera” — whether once, or multiple times since it first arrived on the London stage in 1986, on Broadway two years later, and then around the globe — the extraordinarily opulent new North American touring version of the musical now at the Cadillac Palace Theatre will be a genuine treat. It is a most welcome example of how a classic that has been preserved in amber for more than a quarter of a century can be released, yet at the same time not lose any of its crazy magic.

For those seeing the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Charles Hart musical for the very first time, it will no doubt live up to its reputation as a strangely haunting drama of artistic and sexual awakening that captures the grandeur of another century. Yet they might also be taken by how remarkably modern (and quite Freudian) it feels at the same time.

Without jettisoning the essentials of Harold Prince’s iconic original, director Laurence Connor, choreographer Scott Ambler and set designer Paul Brown have sharpened the show’s storytelling and relationships, and more clearly juxtaposed the real world of a working opera house and the conceits of 19th century opera and ballet performance. In addition, when those two worlds truly collide in a performance of “Don Juan” — a work composed and performed by the hooded Phantom opposite his object of all-consuming desire, Christine Daae — an electrifying tension, of the sort never realized in the original version, now fills the stage.

This production is certainly no cheeky update like the hit PBS series, “Sherlock.” But it is winningly fresh in its fluid staging, its far less mannered acting style (and ideal diction), and its magnificent set that shifts easily from a gilded proscenium and boxes that seem to extend into the theater where the real audience is seated, to a fortresslike wall and perilous stairway that lead to the Phantom’s underground lair, to gorgeous scenery for the various operas-within-an opera. Maria Bjornson’s peerless costumes have been retained. But there is now an effective, very judicious use of pyrotechnics that never overwhelms the action. And even the theme of the mask is played out in a number of different ways.

In addition, the casting is especially shrewd. Cooper Grodin, who only stepped into the title role a week ago (and who confirms the powerful impression he made as Billy in a 2010 Light Opera Works production of “Carousel” here), is younger than some who have played the part, but this makes his competition with Christine’s suitor, Raoul (expertly played by Ben Jacoby), feel more real. So does the choice to make his face seem less deformed than usual.

As Christine, the beautiful Julia Udine not only scales the heights of the score, but acts and dances the role expertly, making the crucial scene in which she visits her father’s grave far more potent than usual. This Christine also is given some genuine competition from the opera house’s reigning soprano, Carlotta, because Jacquelynne Fontaine is no massive, old-fashioned opera diva but a formidable singer and quite glamorous woman in her own right.

Frank Viveros is wonderfully comic as the reigning tenor, Piangi. Hannah Florence is most charming as Meg Giry, Christine’s friend from the ballet corps. Craig Bennett and Edward Edward Staudenmayer provide comic relief as the opera house’s bottom-line-oriented new producers, and Linda Balgord is the forceful ballet mistress who lives with a haunting memory of the Phantom.

Of course at the heart of everything is Lloyd Webber’s soaring score — more operatic than Broadway in style. Listen to it carefully. This production marks the first time you can truly hear how Lloyd Webber created a unique, almost atonal sound for the Phantom’s “Don Juan” score. A very neat trick.

Note: At certain performances, Grace Morgan will play Christine Daae, a role too vocally taxing for any actress to perform eight times a week.

Email: hweiss@suntimes.com
Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic