Broward presents a revamped 'Phantom of the Opera'

Few people on the planet know The Phantom of the Opera better than Cameron Mackintosh, the producer who helped shepherd the show into being and who watches over it still.

The lush, romantic Andrew Lloyd Webber musical is one of the theater world’s most successful shows, running in London since its debut in 1986 (making it third behind The Mousetrap and Les Misérables, another Mackintosh production), and still going strong on Broadway at more than 11,150 performances since 1988 (it is the longest-running show in Broadway history).

Phantom fanatics like the original just fine, some going back to see it hundreds of times. Yet the version of Phantom of the Opera that will begin its run at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts at 8 p.m. Wednesday is not your father’s Phantom.

Sure, the music and story are unchanged, as are the sumptuous Tony Award-winning costumes by the late Maria Björnson. But this new touring Phantom features new sets (by Paul Brown) and projections (by Nina Dunn), new choreography (by Scott Ambler) and new lighting (by Paule Constable). This fresh take on one of theater’s mega-musicals comes from a new director, Laurence Connor.

So why mess with success? The reasons, says Mackintosh from his London office, involve cost and creativity.

“We started talking about this well over 10 years ago, when Maria [Björnson] was still alive. I could foresee that the cost of touring Phantom would make it not viable to play shorter engagements. … We couldn’t do anything except big sit-down runs. This is designed to move and open in two days,” the producer says. “And you do want a new generation to put their stamp on it. It’s grittier. More real.”

The Phantom of the Opera has a long history with the Broward Center. The musical was the big-deal inaugural show when the center opened in 1991, running from late February through early May, often selling out the house at $30 to $50 a ticket. The reconceived Phantom (the fifth time the show has visited Fort Lauderdale) will get 11 days of performances at $34.75 to $159.75 (that’s 23 years of inflation for you). And this time, Broward audiences who can’t get enough of Phantom will get a special treat.

The Fort Lauderdale run marks the end of the road for one set of leading actors and the beginning for another. In the first week, Cooper Grodin will play the Phantom, Julia Udine soprano Christine Daaé and Ben Jacoby her suitor Raoul (Udine will then head for New York to take over the role of Christine on Broadway). Starting Nov. 25, The Voice contestant Chris Mann will star as the Phantom alongside Katie Travis as Christine and Storm Lineberger as Raoul.

So if you have the money and the time, you could see two different leading trios singing the story of a deformed musical genius, the young beauty he mentors and the handsome rival for Christine’s heart. Mackintosh is making the trek to South Florida to do just that.

As for why The Phantom of the Opera has proven so enduring, Mackintosh says: “It’s a simple but really profound story. It’s Beauty and the Beast, in one way. It’s a love triangle in a heightened world. You can revel in it.”

Connor, who has worked with Mackintosh on productions of The King and I, Les Misérables, Miss Saigon, Oliver! and other shows, praises original director Harold Prince and his creative team for their inspiring work.

“The original production was a work of art. It nailed the emotion and heartbeat of the piece. So you’re lucky enough to know what works,” Connor says from London.

He adds, “I almost bit Cameron’s arm off to do it.”

Working with a score he calls “iconic and sweeping and beautiful … one of the greatest scores ever written,” Connor wanted to take a deeper look at the Phantom and Christine. Because of his combination of skills and tortured deformity, because of Christine’s loss of her musician-father when she was just 15, “both have an incredible need within this fantastical world of theater. They somehow find each other and form this remarkable union. We look at it from a human point of view, and the story becomes darker and grittier,” Connor says.

The show’s famous chandelier remains, but the sets and the way the actors move through them are different. Mackintosh notes that set designer Brown created “this huge revolving drum that opens and closes like a kaleidoscope … and he’s used things found in the opera house to create the Phantom’s lair.”

Speaking from a tour stop in New Orleans, Udine — a trained ballerina as well as a singer-actor — says she is excited about moving from the re-imagined Phantom into the Broadway original.

“My agent called me and said, ‘Are you done with Christine?’ I flew to New York from Milwaukee on my day off to audition,” she says. “But being in the new version took the pressure off me as far as imitating any previous performance. I could breathe new life into Christine. Even diehard Phantom fans seem to like it. The gorgeous music and those lush melodies bring people back, even if they’ve seen it many times.”

Grodin, who calls playing the Phantom “by far the most demanding job I’ve ever had,” intends to go back to New York to resume his acting studies once he is finished with the show. He agrees with Udine that Phantom traditionalists seem to like a production that incorporates more than two decades of evolution in theater technology.

“A lot of people come up to me to say they were surprised about how moved they are. Once guy had seen the original 300 times,” says Grodin, adding that Music of the Night is the song he most likes singing in each performance. “Andrew Lloyd Webber is a genius, a master composer. Each of his shows has a very unique and specific vocabulary. The harmonic vocabulary in Phantom is very complicated and intelligent.”

Grodin’s successor as the Phantom grew up in Kansas and did musical theater in high school, but studied opera and vocal performance at Vanderbilt University. Mann came in fourth on the second season of The Voice, and since then has built a successful recording and touring career. But he has temporarily shifted away from his music industry focus to play the Phantom.

“I’m excited by a new challenge. This is the only project I was willing to put everything on hold for,” Mann says. “It’s one of the most iconic roles in all of musical theater, and it’s an honor to do it. The Phantom is larger than life.”

Anticipating singing The Music of the Night makes him “lucky and excited and nervous. I’ve studied how to move with Christine through those words. I think it will feel new every night,” Mann says.

Speaking from New Orleans, where he rehearsed on the show’s set, Mann adds that he’s ready for the discipline that doing The Phantom of the Opera requires — though he admits there are certain comforts he’ll miss.

“I’ve never done eight shows a week, which is the required regimen for a Broadway show. I have to take care of my voice. And not drink, which makes me sad,” he says. “I love a cocktail.”

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