New version of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA Is A Triumph

the-phantom-of-the-opera-1---cooper-grodin-and-20140115Last evening, while walking through the lobby of the Cadillac Palace theatre to see the Cameron Macintosh’s new production of  The Phantom of The Opera, there was a sense of excitement among the patrons that was electric.    Prior to walking through the theatre doors to take their seats, all the attendees huddled into little circles discussing their personal relationship with this unique blockbuster.  We (as I include myself in this pre-theatre gathering) debated our favorite Phantoms, the different countries and continents we have seen a production and how this show was benchmark in how we view other works.   From these conversations, one thing became apparent; any new production that deviates from director Hal Prince’s original is going to be microscopically dissected with reverence to what came before.   With that reverence duly noted, The Phantom of The Opera under the direction of Laurence Connor (who also directed the new Les Mis and the 25th Anniversary concert version of  Phantom) remains an iconic, moving piece of grand theater.

1011988_232685256912109_1138765692_nAt Sir Andrew’s command, nothing in his score has been touched. The changes thus are visual and character driven. Original designer Maria Bjornson ‘s opulent yet largely implied vision of the Paris Opera House has been replaced with a more imposing drum that twists, turns and opens into sets that are grittier and more realistic.   This realism carries through to the performances, allowing to cast create more intimate on-stage relationships with each other.

Where Prince’s original was conceived as a stand-alone production, Mr. Connor’s version is developed to work on its own as well as setting up Webber’s 2009 sequel, Love Never Dies, which should to be viewed to better appreciate the enormous challenge this task posed.

Briefly, Love Never Dies takes place ten years later in Coney Island, New York, where Madame Giry and Meg help the Phantom to escape. Christine and Raul are married and have a ten-year-old musically gifted son, who turns out be you know whose.

This new production now places much more emphasis on Madame Giry’s character and also allows the actor playing Raul to give it some added depth you don’t see in the first version.  However the biggest noticeable change in character is the Phantom, who is now cast much younger in order to make the revelations in Love Never Dies more palatable.  These changes come at some expense to the emotional impact felt in Prince’s version. But considering that Connor’s production stays true to the heart of the original while also making the characters more fully developed, is a testament to his integrity and skill.

For this new U.S. tour, Mr. Connor has assembled a magnificent cast that is vocally superior to most every prior incarnation, especially in the clarity of the words that are sung. Ben Jacoby (son of stalwart Phantom Mark Jacoby), is hands down the best Raul I have seen.  He has found many new angles that make this usually drab character, multi-dimensional and interesting.    Julia Rose Udine’s Christine is spectacular and one of the best to ever have played this role.  There is no naiveté in Udine’s interpretation, giving us a strong, independent, Christine who is in control of everything except the her grief over her father, a famous violinist who passed three years prior.  Her inability to control his grief not only makes Udine’s version of ‘Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again’ the new show-stopper but also gives Cooper Grodin’s Phantom a manipulative way in.

This is where change in age, making the Phantom about 20 years younger, becomes an issue.  In the original, the larger age difference made it much easier to believe that Christine may actually believe that the self-professed ‘Angel of Music’ is her father reincarnate.  Mr. Grodin, and all other subsequent Phantoms who play the role in this version must find a way to overcome this hurdle, as it is a big one, but one that needs to be addressed.  That aside, Mr. Grodin, who only stepped into this role last week, is edgy, sexy and vocally stunning.     Where Grodin excels is in the “Final Lair” scene, where he dealves into emotional depths that I have not witnessed since seeing Michael Crawford.  And, by restaging Christine and the Phantom’s final encounter, she is allowed to see the Phantom without him knowing she is there and views him at his most vulnerable state making her realize that she may be in love with him as well.

But,  the most riveting part of this version lies in the performance of our own Linda Balgord as Madame Giry.   Ms. Balgord drives the production where it needs to go.  There are no new lines or scenes for the character, which makes Balgord’s performance even more amazing.    Instead, it is through Madame Giry that all things are put into motion for the sequel and Balgord re-defines this role as no other actress could do.

And, to answer the most asked question that I have gotten.  Yes, the chandelier drop is still in the show, and better then ever.  In fact I have a piece of it next to me as a write this review.

Mr. Macintosh and Mr. Conner have given us a Phantom for a whole new generation.  It has been almost thirty years since Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman made history creating these roles and now the torch (or mask if you will) is passed that will ensure the Opera Ghost’s success for decades to come.

Phantom is an unstoppable force that remains one of the greatest musicals of all time.    Do not dare miss this new version.

The Phantom of the Opera runs through March 2, 2014 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St, Chicago, IL.  For more information visit www.BroadwayInChicago.com or  www.ThePhantomOfTheOpera.com/ustour For calendar information, visit www.TheatreInChicago.com