BWW Reviews: The 'New' PHANTOM OF THE OPERA
They're at it again. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh's "new" production of The Phantom of the Opera is cautious enough to avoid distorting what has grown to be one of the mega-hit musicals ever, while creating an often clever and refreshing new production to feast upon.
The younger than usual title characters with an inclination toward realism rather than stuffy 1900's opera artists make this a clever and more engaging two hours; more on the cast later. The obvious question is how has the production changed? It's more of a clever redux under the direction of Laurence Connor, who also directs the new version of Les Miserables which is on its way to Broadway. With new designs and new choreography that is more refreshed than re-imagined.
SPOILERS: Yes, there is a chandelier and it does descend, fizzle and sort of explode. Set designer Paul Brown has come up with a most clever center set that might even win over original diehard Phantom fans; a large dark, cylinder that turns on its own axis, which is a bit prone to technical difficulties, transforms into a variety of scenes from the pathway to the phantoms lair, to the small managers office where everyone piles into with Phantom notes creating an obvious laughable ruckus. The overhead cat walks that the Phantom lures Christine have been replaced by some treacherous-looking stairs that magically emerge from the great cylinder. The boat remains, thankfully, but the Phantoms lair is a bit less crowded and lacks the candle towers allowing more movement for the goings on with Christine. "Masquerade" has been redesigned with mirrors replacing the grand stairway and the costumes are less carnival-like and more simplified and the entire scene less glorious and dramatic than the original. "Don Juan Triumphant"/ "Point of No Return" scenes and sets are much more fun, though.
Now on to the cast; for the most part this is a younger principal cast. As with any title role, the main character gets the most attention and scrutiny and Cooper Grodin is literally in the spotlight as Phantom. He works very hard to convey all the emotions of the character and he is both affective and lacking inconsistently. He is convincingly driven to control Christine, yet fails to win her over as her "Angel of Music", but more of a stranger threatening her. His character lacks compassion and vulnerability and is hardly anyone she would be enamored with. Vocally, he works hard and holds his own, though is lower register is far more impressive. His shining moments are in the final scene when he slows down to reflect his decision to let his love leave. "Music of the Night" is the most altered number in this new direction with more of a strange dance duet than a seductive encounter. Rarely having any physical contact, in fact she does not even grab the mask from his face, thus you never grasp any reasoning that Christine is captivated by his spell or is any more than puzzled by what is taking place.
Our Christine is played by newcomer and local Philadelphia area talent Julia Udine. While a bit vocally shrill at first, Udine finds her glorious voice and utterly melts into this role as a strong, yet a fragile young ingénue who soars vocally and emits very natural emotions with a clarity and sense of the character that the most experienced actresses that have played this coveted role possess. Her childhood friend turned suitor Raoul is played by Ben Jacoby, interestingly the son of former Broadway Phantom and Raoul actor Mark Jacoby. The young Jacoby proves to be most adequate, in fact a joy both vocally and artistically. There is a noted chemistry between them.
The role of Carlotta is skillfully played by Jacquelynne Fontaine with a sense of spunk much like Minnie Driver in the filmed production, with the exception that Ms. Fontaine has an impressive operatic voice. Piangi played by Frank Viveros is very animated but otherwise not especially engaging. Madame Giry (Linda Balgord) is more commanding to the cast than revealing the dangers of what she knows to be true. Our opera managers Firmin and Andre played by Craig Bennett and Edward Staudenmayer respectfully are delightfully updated, less clown-like and more like business men with a clever sense of humor. Hannah Florence plays Meg Giry with a spunky charm.
From newcomers to veteran Phantom fans, this touring production is well worth enjoying for the clever changes and the glorious score. The Phantom of the Opera plays at the Academy of Music, Broad Street, Philadelphia through April 19. For Tickets and information call 215.731.3333 or visit www.kimmelcenter.org/broadway.