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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, Dec. 18, 2014

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In Arts & Entertainment Reviews

The Phantom calls to Christine in the Marcus Center's production of "The Phantom of the Opera." (PHOTO: Matthew Murphy)

Set, songs and supernatural spectacle do the heavy lifting in "Phantom"


It seems fitting for a new rendition of Andrew Lloyd Webber's cultural touchstone "Phantom of the Opera" to hit town in the midst of summer movie season, flanked on all sides by fighting robots, mutant turtles and big explosions.

After all, what is "Phantom of the Opera" if not Broadway's finest example of grand blockbuster spectacle (other than "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark," but we don't speak of that anymore), complete with blindingly massive fireballs, crashing set pieces and huge emotional climaxes. It shouldn't come as much of a surprise that when it finally became time to adapt Webber's phenomenon for the screen, it wasn't some arthouse director in charge, but loud chaotic action movie dramatist Joel Schumacher.

The problem with all spectacle, however, is that even the biggest, flashiest show can fall victim to repetition and become commonplace, especially when a show is as routinely brought to the stage as "Phantom" (at London's Her Majesty's Theatre, it's still never left since 1986). Seen one chandelier crash, seen them all. That's when Hollywood and show business pull out their favorite new buzzword and "reimagine" a property.

That's exactly what happened with the new production of "The Phantom of the Opera," playing now at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts through Aug. 3. Not much has incredibly changed, but even what new there is – mostly on the technical side of things – gives what's old a little extra breath of life.

Webber's classic story remains mostly untouched. Chorus girl turned opera star Christine Daae finds herself enrapt in a love triangle, winning the affections of her old childhood friend Raoul, as well as the masked, feverishly obsessive Phantom that's been plaguing the 19th century opera house with behind-the-scenes drama and mishaps. He's also been discreetly training young Daae's voice to replace the theater's current diva, who's not up to his rigorous standards.

Complicating matters are the theater's new owners, growing impatient with the Phantom's meddling and notes (signed OG for Opera Ghost) filled with brutally honest advice – and ominous threats to make sure his tips are thoroughly considered and put into effect. When they finally decide to disobey – combined with Raoul and Christine's burgeoning love – nooses go up and the chandelier goes down.

There are a few tweaks on a character level. The opera diva Carlotta is no longer a hack (her male counterpart Piangi takes up much of the comical bumbling), but an actress and singer of considerable talent – and certainly ego as well – who merely doesn't have the Phantom's blessing. The operas themselves also appear more legitimate as well, though perhaps still on the garishly overdressed side of things.

Most of the new, however, comes in the set design, based mostly around a turning cylinder that opens up into dressing rooms, meeting rooms, the opera house, the Phantom's lair, cemeteries and streets. It's a dynamically designed and surprisingly fluid set, but it's not merely impressive for its technical merits. Each new world comes rich with beautifully lit tableaus rich in texture and smoky, eerie atmosphere, layered visual depth and impressive detail (in the case of a statue near the end of the first act, perhaps too much detail of an anatomic nature).

The exquisitely designed, gorgeously nightmarish visuals – from the Phantom's lair to a brief hallucination of the opera company briefly roaring at Christine to the ghoulishly red-soaked production of "Don Juan Triumphant" which the Phantom hijacks mid-song – consistently surprise, impressive since they come attached to a decades-old show.

In fact, the show is almost better at haunting the soul than it is at moving the heart, mostly because the performances struggle to bring much new life to their characters.

As Christine, Julia Udine fares the best, notably growing her character in confidence and vocal power before the audience's eyes and ears in "Think of Me." Later on, she sells her emotional conflict of having to choose between the safety and security of Raoul and the entrancing but dark unknown that is the Phantom.

Unfortunately, she's stuck picking between two fairly bland options. As Raoul, Ben Jacoby tries his best to bring true affection, emotion and some color to his sweet, safe suitor, but the role is just brutally underwritten. He's perpetually doomed to be the other guy in the show.

The gravest disappointment is Cooper Grodin as the titular menace, albeit oddly with little actual menace. Grodin plays the Phantom much more humanly and realistically than many before him, a man who haunts and is haunted in almost equal measure. It's a noble endeavor but one that renders him less interesting, lacking the dark menace or otherworldly quality that gives the character the ability to seize control of the audience whenever and wherever he – or merely his voice – appears.

When he unleashes at Christine for seeing his deformed unmasked face, he seems somewhat reined in. The fire is visible, but the danger – both shiver-inducing and seductive – is lacking. In the end, the revamped production design does much of the haunting for him.

Even if the performances stay disappointing grounded and a little emotionally empty, their voices uniformly soar. Having such a deservedly iconic book of music certainly helps. Just like Christine's hesitant, nervous attraction to the Phantom's dual nature, Webber's timeless songs – from the dramatic booming opening verses to eerie beauty of "The Music of the Night" to the boisterous "Masquerade" – intrigue the imagination. The score's grand elegance is infested by dark looming shadows seductively creeping in on the borders of the notes. Mixed with the thick, dense atmosphere, it's hypnotically spooky.

The haunting music and beauty of "The Phantom of the Opera" – its crucial core – can still summon chills and shivers, even right in the middle of the dog days of summer.


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