Refreshed Phantom Still Dazzles

Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera holds a special place in my heart. Hal Prince's original blockbuster production, which I saw no less than four times in Toronto back in the mid '90s, was one of my first exposures to big, professional theatre, and I quickly became obsessed with the show.

Yes, Phantom has its flaws. The plot teeters into treacly melodrama, and some may argue ALW's sweeping score feels overwrought. But really, arguing the merits of the material isn't getting us anywhere -- the show has been a sure-fire hit for more than a quarter century with no end in sight.

What drew me to this tour was that mega producer Cameron Mackintosh has stepped away from the original Prince staging and has built, from the ground up, a brand new production.

Mackintosh has recruited up-and-coming director Laurence Connor, who brought new life to the recent Les Misérables tour that's been making the rounds and is coming to Broadway in March, to helm this new production. Connor has a knack for pushing aside the bombast and finding real human truths in the material, and that skill is displayed here.

Gone are the late, great Maria Björnson's award-winning (and now iconic) scenic designs, which brought Prince's minimalist-yet-magnificent staging to life. Paul Brown's new scenic vision certainly leaves you feeling like Mackintosh has left no expense spared. The result is a somewhat cluttered yet visually arresting landscape featuring a giant rotating scenic element that produces a few jaw-dropping surprises. And, yes, the chandelier is still intact, and it still makes a dramatic plunge at the end of act one (spoiler!). (However, you might want to wear eye goggles during this moment -- much to the surprise of those in my seating area, the chandelier shoots out soft plastic 'glass shards' that unfortunately went right into my eye. No damage done, but certainly jarring.)

Of course, no amount of spectacle will work if the leads aren't up to snuff. In the title role, Cooper Grodin (who stepped into the role a few days ago) offers up a sexy, lean Phantom with a huge voice. Julia Udine makes for a spunky Christine (thanks to Connor's direction which seems to give this Christine a stronger presence. For example, in a scene in act two, Udine's Christine slaps Raul in a fit of rage over him making her perform as a means to trap the Phantom. In Prince's version, Christine cowers and runs away.)

Yet it's the supporting roles who shine. As thwarted opera diva Carlotta, Jacquelynne Fontaine avoids over-the-top theatrics and makes her diva more a cool and stubborn creature. Linda Balgord, who has spent most of her career playing grand ladies such as Norma Desmond and Grizabella, dowers it up as Madame Giry, and she gives a chilling and committed performance.

But it's ALW's unapologetically romantic score that sticks with us, and this tour boasts a relatively sizable orchestra of 17 players (though not nearly as big as the 27 pieces in the original production). The show still sounds fantastic, and lighting designer Paule Constable keeps a soft spotlight on conductor Richard Carsey as if to remind us that the score is the real star here.

"The Phantom of the Opera" plays through March 2 at the Cadillac Palace. More info here