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'Phantom' doles out plenty of visual and sound effects

By JULIE McHALE - TimeOut Theater Critic

July 31, 2014

 
The Marcus Center for the Performing Arts in Milwaukee opened its dazzling production last weekend to sellout crowds of appreciative patrons. Be prepared for stellar voices, a plush but foreboding set design (Paul Brown), gorgeous costumes (Maria Bjornson) and chilling but spectacular visual and sound effects (Paule Constable and Mick Potter).  

Cameron Mackintosh is responsible for this new touring production and Laurence Connor for the direction. Our very own Richard Carsey and Jamie Johns added their considerable experience and expertise to the splendid orchestration of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s soaring score.  

The story, based on a novel by Gaston Leroux, echoes shades of “Beauty and the Beast,” the “Elephant Man” and the “Hunchback of Notre Dame”; sad tales of persons whose external appearance is tortuous and proves a deterrent to their dreams of love and acceptance. The Phantom is also a talented composer-singer who is jealous of those who have not been excluded.  

The tension of fear and angst is provided by the ominous presence of The Phantom living in the bowels of the Paris opera house. He has fallen in love with Christine, a young budding star, and does everything in his power to bring her fame, hoping that she will eventually fall in love with him to reward him for his efforts in her regard. The catch is that she is already in love with Raoul, her leading man, and though she has some sympathy and compassion for The Phantom, she does not want to be held as his captive.  

The triangular love story and the persuasive horror hold our interest, but the exquisite music provides the surpassing pleasure. Carlotta, beautifully played by Jacquelynne Fontaine, is the star that The Phantom frightened right off the stage so Christine could be the lead. She and Christine (Julia Udine) and Raoul (Ben Jacoby) open the show with an impressive rendition of “Think of Me.” After that, she is relegated to an also-ran position.  

Several numbers of shattering beauty include “The Phantom of the Opera” and “The Music of the Night,” sung by The Phantom. Cooper Grodin is competent and frightening in his role, but his rendition lacks humanity.   

“All I Ask of You” and “Wishing You Were Here Again” were executed with an aching passion and were more moving. Both Udine and Jacoby have more warmth in their voices. Grodin and Fontaine are more typically operatic, and I found myself focusing more on vocal technique than the message of the lyrics. All four are quite amazing for different reasons, however.  

Choreography directed by Scott Ambler was impressive. Other roles nicely handled include those played by Brad Oscar, Edward Staudenmayer and Linda Balgord. Hannah Florence added a nice soft touch as Christine’s sympathetic friend Meg.  

The ensemble numbers knocked down the house (and the chandelier). Overall, a memorable night at the opera house. A side note: Christine’s first descent into the murkiness of Phantom’s habitat was so haunting that it still lurks in my mind.  

‘The Phantom of the Opera” runs through Sunday at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, 929 N. Water St., Milwaukee. For tickets, call 414-273-7206 or visit www.marcuscenter.org