New 'Phantom' more than just shiny new tech

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Cooper Grodin and Julia Udine. -PHOTO: Matthew Murphy

Much of the marketing for the new tour of The Phantom of the Opera has heavily promoted its technologically advanced staging — and with good reason. The show, which arrived in Milwaukee this week for a 12-night engagement ending Aug. 3, is both opulent and gritty all at once, with sets sliding in and out almost without you noticing and increased pyrotechnics and lighting trickery adding an extra level of danger.

But to justify its ticket price, Phantom needs more than a new way of breaking the chandelier. It needs a cast with the vocal power and acting acumen to live up to the gorgeous world they’re performing in.

And boy, do they have that.

This tour comes courtesy of producer Cameron Mackintosh, who has gathered a cast and crew of 52 for the production. It’s a mass of people that somehow never seems to crowd the stage, even when the Phantom’s actions to install his beloved Christine as the Paris Opera’s lead soprano plunge the characters into chaos and panic. More importantly, this is a multi-talented cast, providing the foundational unity and cacophony that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score alternately requires. 

The musical’s secondary characters all provide strong, nuanced performances. Jacquelynne Fontaine as Carlotta, especially, plays the diva without leaning on comically bad singing. She creates a fleshed-out character from a potentially paper-thin role. But Phantom is always ultimately about its three leads, and this production is no exception. 

Christine (Julia Udine) is undisputedly the strongest of the three. Her role is the most vocally challenging in the script — one of the most challenging in contemporary musical theater — and she never slides out of a pitch, no matter how high, low or in between. 

But that wasn’t the most riveting aspect of her performance. What elevated her Christine were: the way she began “Think Of Me” in the weakest, threadiest, voice imaginable before visibly swallowing her fear and bringing it to triumphant fruition; the way her early chatter with Raoul vacillates between nostalgia and attraction; the way we see her struggle and evolve all the way through “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again” and “Point of No Return,” taking agency of herself and becoming the heroine she needs to be. In short, her exemplary acting — perhaps strange to highlight in and of itself, but something rare in a singer as talented as Udine. She might have won over an audience with the strength of her voice alone, and it’s a credit to her and this production that she doesn’t. As a result, her layered and committed Christine become the heart of this Phantom

The Phantom himself (Cooper Grodin) is the most altered from the usual interpretation. Absent is the image of the seductive older patron. Grodin’s Phantom is closer in age to Christine and looks it, less a father figure and more an age-appropriate love interest. Grodin's Phantom is initially as interested in Christine as a vehicle to bring his opera to life as for her beauty. In “Music of the Night,” often staged as a dance of temptation that parallels “Point of No Return,” Grodin’s focus is on the score he keeps presenting to Christine. His attraction to her only grows as his madness does, and each action to win her heart pulls him further away from his artistic ambitions.

Then there’s Raoul (Ben Jacoby), who remains woefully underwritten as a romantic counterpoint to the Phantom. But Jacoby overcomes the shallow writting to create a complex Raoul, one who makes Christine's ultimate choice of him over the Phanton less certain. His Raoul has compassion the Phantom lacks, but he shares the Phantom’s raging temperament. There's more than one moment in the play where a surge of romantic or angry passion drives Raoul forward at Christine and forces her to back away in sudden panic, much as she reacts to the Phantom. He’s a work-in-progress as much as the other two, and it’s only his tendency toward the heroic despite his flaws that makes him a worthy match for Christine.

It’s perhaps that last quality that makes this Phantom such a joy to watch — the sense that you’re watching not simply a twisted, tempestuous love triangle but rather three individuals struggling to come into their own as adults — a process fraught with pitfalls even without an exploding chandelier.

On stage

The Phantom of the Opera runs through August 3 at the Marcus Center, 929 N. Water St. Shows are at 7:30 p.m. weeknights, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Tickets range from $27 to $137 and can be purchased at 414-273-7206 or the Marcus Center online box office. 

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