Cameron Mackintosh has never believed that having an address not within haunting distance of Broadway should prevent you from a big night out — at the kind of show where you can clearly see that for which your hard-earned cash paid and that does not make you feel like an overdressed, self-deluding, romantic fool.
Ever since "The Phantom of the Opera" earned his first buck (or pound), he has catered to those who hope they might impress someone they'd mightily like to impress. And thus, it is a relief to report, the great producer's new "Phantom" is no cut-rate experience.
Au contraire. It makes most road shows these days look like digitized midgets. The famous (in some circles, infamous) chandelier not only still falls in all three requisite dimensions, but it now drips little pieces of faux-crystal onto the paying customers. Flames roar from the floor in Paul Brown's amply gilded setting, an interesting and expansive new design that burrows much deeper into the architecture of Paris Opera House and far beyond, and that offers distinctive new possibilities for several of the famous Andrew Lloyd Webber numbers that, in all probability, took up residence again in your skull about two sentences back and won't be leaving until next week.
That said, the new "Phantom," although full of integrity and replete with admirable respect for its audience, is not at the level of the "Les Miserables" redux, that played here last year and that is justly headed to Broadway this season.
Both the "Les Miz" and the "Phantom" are the work of the same, talented U.K. director, Laurence Connor (he co-directed "Les Miz"), and they share a language and architecture. Both open up the requisite shows and let in more light and air. Both assume more of a narrative, storybook sweep, swooshing the characters through space in a rather more expansive fashion and moving away from a central, controlling visual metaphor. Both are fresher and, in aspiration at least, rawer. So what's the difference?
"Phantom" just was always more dependent on its original production than "Les Miz," which stands more easily apart. To some degree, this new "Phantom" makes you better appreciate the theatrical genius of Hal Prince, the original director. I don't intend to insult Connor, whose work I admire, with that comparison. It's just that the edgy, minimalist but brilliant storytelling of the Prince version (and the original Maria Bjornson design), the way it tracked this story, was such a perfect counterbalance to the romantic bombast of the material. When you put the two together, you had a kind of remarkable, populist alchemy, one that sustains a Broadway run of more than a quarter century. Brown's setting is a closer match for the material, which would normally be the highest possible praise for a designer, but I left the theater Wednesday night reconvinced that the "Phantom" alchemy had more to do with polar opposites than I'd realized.
Speaking of alchemy, that crucial quality is lacking within the two leads, Cooper Grodin and Julia Udine. Both are young. Both are beautiful, even thrilling singers. Grodin is an interesting actor with all kinds of promise; Udine is earnest and appealing. Taken as individual creations, each characterization makes sense. But the star of this show is neither the Phantom or Christine but their push and pull together. And since we're in a post "Fifty Shades" world now, that's doubly true. I kept wishing someone had locked this pair in a room for a few hours and told them they could not come out except by way of the other. That might spark a more intense connection.
This is a new tour and Grodin has owned this role for about five minutes. I'm also conscious that my view is clouded by my history of watching stars, such as Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman, many times over. And I'm all for youth and ego-free ensembles and all that.
But I kept finding my eye drawn to the great Linda Balgord (once the star of "Sunset Boulevard" in Chicago), who plays the ballet-mistress, Madame Giry. She is the best thing in the show (a rare thing to write about that character in a "Phantom" review, and I've written plenty). She is so just so experienced, emotional and connected an actor. Her work in this production offers many lessons for her younger colleagues, which include Ben Jacoby, a charming Raoul, following in the footsteps of his dad, Mark, one of the finer Phantoms.
This promising new version will be a Stateside process for Mackintosh —"Phantom" is just so tricky a show to redo. As far as I could tell, not a note of the score (nor the orchestrations) had been changed. There is just reverence here for the original. But that score, with all of the underscoring of dialogue, locks you into a lot of choices.
On Wednesday, one often had the sense the performers were filling in their realities for a measure or two, waiting for the right musical cue to come their way. One sympathizes. They take a long time to arrive. An advantage of the cut-down Las Vegas version was that some of that space was removed. But that's dead and gone and came at a cost anyway. The job left to do here for Connor and his associates is for the actors to learn how to fill their time and arrive organically at the next moments. Add in the reality that Brown's design and Paule Constable's lighting, which is rich and textured, rely on split-second timing and you get one tricky assignment, which perhaps explains why focus did not fall quite at the right instant on that tumbling light-fixture, or the stagehand in the noose. Brown shows you more of the Opera House, but, somehow, Bjornson made you see the old joint more clearly in your mind. It's harder to work the more complicated way. But that's the assignment this most famous of commercial musicals now has set for itself.
And Mackintosh will have to keep on producing.
When: Through March 2
Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St.
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Tickets: $23-$115 at 800-775-2000 and broadwayinchicago.com