Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Sumptuous New Production Unmasks My Phandom -- Chicago Theater Review: The Phantom of the Opera

Theater Review

The Phantom of the Opera
Cadillac Palace, Chicago
Thru March 2

I'm as surprised as anyone about my giving The Phantom of the Opera a @@@@@ review.

Although I was wowed upon seeing the famed Andrew Lloyd Webber musical in 1993--when a trip to the theater was a great rarity for me--I was rather disappointed in seeing the show in 2004 and again in 2007.

I can't recall my specific dissension, but think I think I found the scenario creepy, much of the music middling and the whole affair rather bloated.

But in seeing a new touring production at the Cadillac Palace on Tuesday night--with my friend Paolo, who considers Phantom his second favorite musical behind A Chorus Line--I was somewhat astonished to find just about everything rather delightful.

Perhaps the revamped staging, though still quite grand, makes the proceedings seem less Gothic and ghoulish, especially as the Phantom abducts his ingenue Christine and transports her by boat to his secret lair.

Photo credits: Matthew Murphy, except where noted
Or maybe in seeing the insipid Ghost the Musical just a week prior, I was primed to better appreciate the vastly superior scenery, script, score, singing, orchestrations, costumes, acting, pacing and direction exhibited by Phantom.

I still wouldn't say I like the source material as much as that of Les Misérables, nor others among my very favorite musicals, but can't deny I found the current production to be a complete treat.

And, of course, Paolo loved it. 

Though according to their listed credits in the Playbill, neither Cooper Grodin (The Phantom) nor Julia Udine (Christine) have Broadway experience--and while I would guess that this is a tour utilizing Equity (actors union) performers, I see nothing to confirm it--if you told me that both stars had held the same roles on Broadway or in London's West End, I'd have no reason to doubt it.

Both were spectacularly well-sung and looked great--Grodin may have seemed a tad young, but this isn't even a quibble--as did Ben Jacoby (Raoul, Christine's love interest), who came directly from the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire.

At that fine venue, last year I saw Now & Forever, a revue of Andrew Lloyd Webber showtunes--he's the composer but never the lyricist; Phantom's lyrics are by Charles Hart--and in it an actress with substantive Broadway credits, Linda Balgord, sang a beautiful version of "Memory" from Cats. Here she plays Madame Giry, the ballet choreographer and seeming confidant of the Phantom.

So the cast was superlative, the sets were astonishing--if any lesser than previously, I couldn't tell--and the orchestra sounded fantastic, especially in delivering the powerful overture.

Photo Credit: Alastair Muir
But though I knew several of the early songs--the Overture, "Think of Me," "Angel of Music," "The Phantom of the Opera" and "The Music of the Night"--were pleasant and powerful, after turning to Paolo and saying, "Well, at least the first 45 minutes were great," unlike in viewings past, for whatever reason, the rest of the show didn't let me down.

Sure, a couple of the songs are more pedestrian than their companions, but that's true in every musical. But though I somewhat expected to, there was never a point where I thought to myself, "This really isn't that good."

Quite the contrary, in fact, which made it a bit confusing why the balcony at the Cadillac Palace was way undersold, only two weeks into a run slated to go another six.

Of course, with The Phantom of the Opera being the most successful musical--and live entertainment event of any kind--of all-time (it's been running in London since 1986 and 1988), and having played Chicago on numerous national tours, it's conceivable that many theater lovers are all "been there, done that."

And perhaps, "Didn't even love that."

But whether you are an avowed Phanatic--as Paolo assuredly is--or someone like me, who hasn't been blown away in the past, or even one who has never seen Phantom live on stage, this spectacular production (directed by Laurence Connor, with a new set design by Paul Brown) is well worth (re)discovering.

And with tickets as low as $25--and for a giant production like this, the balcony is certainly fine, if not even preferable--and better seats discounted on HotTix, a couple could easily take in Phantom for the price of a movie or two.

So who knows, if in the past I was wrong or right, but I was captured anew by the music of the night.

Here's a promotional clip from Broadway in Chicago, although not with the current cast: 

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