New ‘Phantom’ amps up the beloved musical

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Cooper Grodin and Julia Udine in the new touring production of Phantom of the Opera. — Photo: Matthew Murphy

In this production, the Paris opera house is more realistic and less dramatically lit. The phantom is more man than myth — and with a personality that lies somewhere on the autism spectrum. At the end of Act 1, the chandelier does more than just jingle and sway.

Those changes — and more — make the current touring production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera a fresh lens through which to experience the familiar story and beloved music. The enhanced Phantom visits Milwaukee’s Marcus Center for the Performing Arts July 25–Aug. 3. 

Produced by Cameron Mackintosh, who also produced the original production, the new version appeals to new audiences and die-hard fans, according to Seth Sklar-Heyn, who’s served as associate director under Mackintosh for multiple productions of the musical.

“Cameron has been quick to point out that this new production couldn’t exist without the original, and it’s not that it’s better — just different,” says Sklar-Heyn. “It also may be the only show that has a reimagined version on tour while the original is still playing on Broadway.”

Lloyd Webber’s stunning score still drives the production, but technological advancements since the original show opened in 1986 have enabled producers to upgrade many aspects of the show. New lighting cues, pyrotechnics and other forms of theatrical magic are threaded throughout the familiar narrative. The show has been anything but reduced for easy travel, Sklar-Heyn says.

“People wonder if we have minimized the show, but we’re still touring with 20 trucks and making significant demands of the theaters in which we play,” he says.

Some of the most important changes involve director Laurence Connor’s interpretation of the mysterious character who haunts the opera and his pathological obsession with Christine, the young coloratura he maniacally mentors. When Raoul, Christine’s childhood friend, reemerges in her life as an ardent suitor, the stage is set for intrigue and heartbreak.

This plot plays out in a subtly different way in the new version, Sklar-Heyn says.

“Christine is onstage throughout the production, and Laurence will maintain that it is less the Phantom’s and more Christine’s story,” says Sklar-Heyn.

The Phantom originally was presented as Svengali-like in his ability to spellbind Christine. He’s a disappointed hero in pursuit of something he feels is rightfully his.

But in the new production, he’s a more nuanced character. Going back to the musical’s source material, Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel of the same name, Connor envisions the Phantom as a man cursed from birth by physical deformity. He is musically brilliant, but obsessed with musical perfection to an extent that would qualify as Asperger’s syndrome.

“Laurence has referred to the Phantom as being on the autism spectrum in his discussions — absolutely brilliant in his powers but unable to handle the world in a normal way,” says Sklar-Heyn. “We tried to portray him as more human and his personality as a unique way of coping with the world.”

The iconic chandelier still plays a prominent role in the new production. But new technology has given this prop a greater presence.

“We’ve given the chandelier a little more to do, and (we) can adjust the level of (its) performance based on the capabilities of the performance venue,” Sklar-Heyn explains. “In this production it’s more than just a place for a laughing Phantom to hide.”

By maintaining the intrinsic qualities of the show while amping up the theatrics, the new Phantom of the Opera provides fans a more dazzling experience, Sklar-Heyn believes. “What I like most about Phantom is that I can come in as an audience member and become immersed in the sheer spectacle of the production,” he says. “There is something visceral in the size and scope of the show that really turns me on.”

But the intimate connection he’s always felt with the Phantom is undiminished.

“As to the man, I like anyone who gets lost in himself,” Sklar-Heyn says. “The Phantom exists as himself at certain moments, but also as the construction of what other people want from him. And I can absolutely relate to that component of his character. In fact, I think a lot of us can relate to that.”

ONSTAGE

The new production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera runs July 25–Aug. 3 at Milwaukee’s Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, 929 N. Water St. For more information and tickets, phone 414-273-7121 or go to www.marcuscenter.org/show/the-phantom-of-the-opera

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