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‘Phantom’ redux — Iconic stage musical gets a facelift

 
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JuliUdine stars as Christine Daaé Ben Jacoby stars as Raoul national touring producti'The Phantom Opera.' | Phoby: Matthew Murphy

Julia Udine stars as Christine Daaé and Ben Jacoby stars as Raoul in the national touring production of "The Phantom of the Opera." | Photo by: Matthew Murphy

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The Phantom of the Opera, Jan. 9-March 2, Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph. $23-$93. (800) 775-2000; BroadwayInChicago.com.

Updated: January 13, 2014 4:09PM



Editor’s Update: The role of the Phantom is now being played by Cooper Grodin. The announcement was made after this story was originally published.

Long-running musicals are prone to what might be called “The Sleeping Beauty” syndrome — locked into the particular staging, design and overall zeitgeist of their iconic “original Broadway” (or London) editions for years.

The megahits of producer Cameron Mackintosh (“Cats,” “Les Miserables,” “The Phantom of the Opera”) are particularly victims of this syndrome, with original productions that tend to be measured in decades rather than years. And while the rights to both “Cats” and “Les Miserables” have opened up (producing some very welcome, often smaller scale takes on these classics), Mackintosh himself has (for better and for worse) attempted to refresh his hit shows too.

He turned to “Les Miserables’ first. Now, more than a quarter-century after Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom” (“the most successful musical of all time” as the billing goes) opened in London, he has produced an updated edition of the show that is touring North America and will make an extended stop in Chicago, running Jan. 9-March 2 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre. It is directed by Laurence Connor, who also crafted the revised 25th anniversary edition of the Schonberg-Boublil classic, “Les Miserables,” which has already been seen here.

What is sacrosanct when approaching “Phantom,” which was originally directed by Hal Prince and, since its debut in 1986, has grossed over $5.6 billion worldwide, with over 65,000 performances seen by 130 million people in 29 countries and 13 languages? And what needed rethinking?

“The music, of course, is sacrosanct,” said Connor. “That is why it exists. And you really can’t do the show without the falling chandelier, which we’ve kept very real, though we’ve added some bells and whistles to the sequence. We’ve also kept Maria Bjornson’s original Tony Award-winning costumes. But theater technology has improved constantly since the 1980s, and we’ve all been exposed to new ways of seeing. That said, my preference is to use this technology in the simplest ways, and as a means of amplifying the story.

“The set, newly designed by Paul Brown, still has a massive quality. But audiences will now get a 360-degree perspective of the Paris Opera House’s interior, its fly spaces, rooftop and corridors. And the journey of the Phantom and Christine Daae through the opera house’s watery underground is different. I won’t reveal the secrets of the automation, but it’s not just projections. I think it’s a movable feast.”

Connor also wanted to suggest more of a backstory for both the Phantom and Christine.

“Why is the Phantom the way he is? And yes, isn’t it understandable that Christine, a girl who left her home and her father at 15, is vulnerable to his attentions? Along the way I wanted to find the real grit in the opera house world, with the actors playing the scenes more truthfully and less melodramatically. You even see the ballet girls undressing.”

To help accomplish this he turned to Scott Ambler for new choreography (replacing the original by Gillian Lynne).

“I wanted all the staging to move in a more realistic way,” said the director, who noted that the flagship London and Broadway productions of “Phantom” have remained unchanged. “I wanted Scott to make the dancing real, too, so the stylized masquerade on the grand staircase is gone, but in its place is a giant ballroom scene.”

This new “Phantom” comes with a cast and orchestra totalling 52, making it one of the largest touring productions on the continent. Mark Campbell plays the title role, with Julia Udine as Christine, Chicago-bred actors Ben Jacoby as Raoul, Linda Balgord as Madame Giry, and Craig Bennett as Monsieur Firmin, and opera singer Jacquelynne Fontaine as Carlotta Giudicelli.

“This is really a gigantic beast of a show that takes 18 trucks to haul from city to city,” said Connor. “But we’ve now gotten the whole process of installing it on stage and then packing it up down to a science.”



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