The “two types of people” bromide perhaps doesn’t have any better use than to divide the world into those who love Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera, and those who hate it. If you fall in the latter category, the 2004 film version likely drove that hatred even deeper.
But there’s something to be said for taking a fresh-eyed look at a work you thought had taken too much of a critical beating all these years, even if deservedly. It had the last laugh — box office numbers for Phantom on Broadway are still enviable; and everyone involved in converting Gaston Leroux’s 1911 novel into a garish spectacle are very rich.
The new production of the nearly three-decade-old musical, which is playing for three weeks at the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Winspear Opera House — its first time at this venue — is successfully updated enough to (almost) erase painful memories of Gerard Butler’s horrendous vocal performance in the title role of the movie.
Granted, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s electronically enhanced score is still there (the music of the title song still induces big-time eye-rolling), and the lyrics (by Charles Hart; additional lyrics by Richard Stilgoe) are mind-bogglingly simplistic, but the shift away from the overly melodramatic does wonders for the camp factor. As in, it nearly eradicates it.
This version, directed by Laurence Connor with choreography by Scott Ambler, gives us a Phantom (Cooper Grodin) whose motivations are more human, more worthy of sympathy; and other characters that are far less cartoons than they were in the Harold Prince-directed original (both versions were overseen by producer Cameron Mackintosh).
The central love triangle, between the half-masked one, soprano Christine Daae (bright-voiced Julia Udine in the first week and last week of this run; Grace Morgan and Celia Hottenstein play the role Aug. 12-17) and her childhood friend Raoul (debonair Ben Jacoby) is more fleshed out; for once, it’s not embarrassing to root for Raoul in this underwritten role.
The gorgeous costumes by Maria Bjornson remain intact, but a big part of this version’s transformation is the set design, by Paul Brown. It’s more specific than the earlier version about certain locations of the story, such as the office where the guys who run the Paris Opera house, Monsieur Firmin (the hilarious Brad Oscar) and Monsieur Andre (Edward Staudenmayer), along with ballet mistress Madame Giry (Linda Balgord), learn about the Phantom’s plans through a humorous series of hand-written notes. Early on, the scenes with the ballet company rehearsing for an opera are vibrant with color — important for a show that has always been darkly hued and darkly lit.
Carlotta was never meant to be the character you remember most, but as played by Jacquelynne Fontaine, that’s what happens. Again, less cartoon, more human. She, along with the major players in this cast, sings like a dream.
That’s always been important for a work with “opera” in the title, but now it’s easier to, as the lyric says, “Let the dream begin, let your darker side give in.”