Retooled Phantom Falls Flat

The “Masquerade” ball scene from the reimagined “Phantom of the Opera” currently playing at the Broward Center. Credit: Alastair Muir

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “The Phantom of the Opera” has returned to Fort Lauderdale’s Broward Center….for the fifth time since the center was inaugurated in 1991. Should you see it again?

Producers promised a re-imagined “Phantom,” a new vision for the longest running show on Broadway, a legendary production that has grossed $6 billion over 65,000 performances—that’s 140 million tickets— in 30 countries. Obviously, something was working, even if the show is practically middle-aged.

Lloyd Webber’s tuneful score and Maria Bjornson’s stunning costumes were retained, but Webber and producer Cameron Mackintosh entrusted fellow Brit Laurence Connor to helm a fresh interpretation, along with choreography by Scott Ambler and a set by Paul Brown, that would focus less on the spectacle and more on the characters and their relationships.

Connor co-directed the reimagined version of “Les Miserables” a couple of years ago that ditched that show’s iconic turntable and wound up on Broadway for another profitable run.

For “Phantom,” this approach means that producers saved a lot of money on sets. This production is still opulent by road show standards, but it is not the near-Broadway clone that forced performing arts centers across the country to knock out walls just to accommodate the massive sets.

Instead, the scenes are dark, relying on inventive lighting from Paule Constable. A tall brick silo rotates throughout the production, serving as the back wall of the opera house, the descending staircase to the Paris sewers and revealing the manager’s offices. The Phantom’s lair, in particular, is spare, more bachelor pad than studio, equipped with an odd organ sans pipes.

The one-ton chandelier remains, but lends less presence to the setting of the opening scene, even if it later descends faster, evoking a few screams from the audience below. Even the breathtaking gondola ride through the sewer is truncated.

The operas with the opera, “Hannibal,” “Il Muto” and “Don Juan Triumphant,” seem two dimensional, cartoonish and just plain cheap, but it’s the masquerade ball at the opening of Act II that suffers the most. The mirrored ballroom is impressive, but the elimination of the grand staircase steals the terror of the Phantom’s menacing entrance.

But the biggest flaw in this production, if the emphasis is to be on the characters and their love triangle, is the acting. Cooper Grodin’s Phantom is too young and lacks the gravitas at nearly every entrance. The tortured soul is lost in his performance. His is also by far the weakest voice of the leads, failing to cut through the rich orchestrations performed by a 15-piece pit. And then there’s the issue of romantic chemistry with Julia Udine’s Christine.

Udine capably handles the massive vocal demands of her role while embodying the naïveté of her young dancer. Ben Jacoby, as Christine’s childhood friend and hopeful suitor Raul, boasts the strongest voice of the three and much more charisma than Grodin.

It would be difficult for anyone who has seen the original to not draw comparisons. At the press event earlier in the week, one enthusiastic guest boasted having seen the show more than 60 times and planned to top 70 while the new show is in South Florida.

There is still much to like in this production, even if it is unlikely to make its way to Broadway. The supporting cast is uniformly excellent throughout, the costumes are breathtaking and Connor maintains a brisk pace.

“Phantom of the Opera” runs through Nov. 30 at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale. Tickets start at $34.75 at BrowardCenter.org.


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