So rare is a show that can run fundamentally unaltered for 26 years, bringing in global audiences galore, that this touring production of still-going Broadway megahit “The Phantom of the Opera,” with a new set and staging, is big news, despite introducing almost no significant change. Overall, this cautious but often clever redux by director Laurence Connor — who also helmed the new version of “Les Miserables” on its way to Broadway — provides a subtly refreshed but not re-imagined “Phantom,” with a new design and new choreography, a younger-than-usual title character and a tendency toward realism rather than parodic buffoonery by the supporting players.
Of course, the famed “Phantom” phanatics will first want to know this: The chandelier buzzes and pops and sheds fake crystals but doesn’t take a full plunge. Sacrilege to some, but let’s be honest — at least in the last U.S. touring version to come through Chicago, that superannuated special effect had ceased to provide a thrill anyway.
There are additions here that even the dedicated should appreciate. Paul Brown’s smart set centers on a large cylinder that twists on its circular axis to move between the various spaces. It’s less shadowy because there’s less vast darkness than in the original set, but there’s also a greater movement and variety to the designs for the backstage sequences. There’s now a manager’s office with walls that fold open cleverly, and the more confined space helps with some of the comedy, as everyone piles into the office carrying notes they’ve been sent by the Phantom.
The backstage area where the Phantom gains access to his subterranean lake is represented by the curved outside of the cylinder. Treacherous-looking stairs emerge from the wall for the Phantom and Christine to descend. A boat still takes them over the dry-ice water to the Phantom’s lair, but once there, we find only a few candles and some dim, slightly abstract electric light fixtures hanging above. Because this younger Phantom (Cooper Grodin) is a bit less pretentious, it actually makes sense for his space to be emptier: an organ, a bed, some light.
More significantly than the chandelier, there’s no mirror bride, and Christine (Julia Udine) doesn’t remove the Phantom’s mask but rather sees his face when she catches him washing it. His reaction, however, is the same.
Tonally, the biggest change comes in the opera-within-the-pop-operetta scenes. In Hal Prince’s production, these sequences were clear parodies of buffoonish bombast; they now represent snippets of operas that seem like they’re quite good. The new owners of the opera house are no longer as clownish, and diva Carlotta (Jacquelynne Fontaine) is not a figure one expects to be ridiculed.
These seemingly small shifts do have potential interpretive impact. The Phantom is no longer the one true artist acting out against the uncaring commercial machine; here he wants Carlotta out of the show and Christine in because he’s obsessed with Christine, not because she’s so much better.
And yet, despite his increased obsession over Christine as opposed to the music, there’s a decidedly muted quality to the passion in the central love triangle. It’s hard to tell whether the chilly emotions are just due to new actors in the roles (two of whom just took over their parts since the last tour stop) or represent a genuine choice. Is Connor attempting to update Christine to recognize that a more modern damsel in distress wouldn’t faint at the sight of a bridal dress, and would be less interested in rapid romantic love and more concerned with what the men around her can practically provide? The Phantom offers her a career, while suitor Raoul (Ben Jacoby) can give her security. Is the tragedy not that she loves two men, but that she can’t have her musical career without attaching herself to a creepy stalker?
The answers to these questions remain unclear, and this ambiguity might be exactly the compromise that occurs when you try to change and not-change something at the same time. Connor seems to hint toward a different take on the characters without committing, and without greater clarity, the actors’ performances will likely revert over time to the familiar and time-tested, particularly when casts inevitably change.
Not that audiences will notice, or mind.