It was in January 2008 when the Windy City was last paid a visit by the blockbuster of Broadway show tours, for the always popular Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Phantom."
The signature hauntingly beautiful musical showcase about a masked figure hiding in the shadows actually opened on Halloween 2007 and played a capacity run through January 2008 with dramatic and dashing lead John Cudia in the title role and perfectly at home at Cadillac Palace Theatre.
At the time, Cudia, who had been wearing the "Phantom" cape since 1999, was an impressive presence for both crowds and critics, including this scribe.
The musical, based on the classic novel by Gaston Leroux, telling the story of a masked figure living beneath the catacombs of the Paris Opera House and terrorizing all who inhabit it, is back in Chicago and back at the Cadillac Palace Theatre until March 2.
But this new tour, which just launched in November for two city stops prior to planting roots last week in Chicago, features new changes, new faces and new feats billed as "the spectacular new production by Cameron Mackintosh."
But I don't think anyone expected the fresh changes to also include a new man behind the mask announced on the same day the musical opened for previews in Chicago. Mark Campbell, who played the Phantom for the first tour stops was suddenly out "because of personal reasons" and replaced by Cooper Grodin, who's not quite ready to swing from any chandeliers just yet. (Actually, in the stage musical, the Phantom has never swung from a chandelier.)
This visit marks the fifth Broadway run in Chicago for the musical, so it's understandable that it's not a bad idea for some changes.
But Grodin's quivering, mechanical Phantom isn't the change desired. He seems too young, and while his vocals fill the bill, the rest needs work. Julia Udine is beautifully cast as the soprano of this man of shadows' desire. Her voice is bliss. Chicago's own Ben Jacoby also has fine vocals, but needs to grow in his role of the hero Raoul. His cemetery fight with the Phantom is not convincing. Worthy of thrown roses are Linda Balgord as ballet Madame Giry and Edward Staudenmayer and Craig Bennett as the new owners of the opera house, a trio of pure pros and entertaining at every turn.
As for what else is so new and re-imagined, gone is the grand staircase (which I miss) for the "Masquerade" number that opens the second act. And I'm not quite sure why the Phantom's signature pipe organ now looks like a desk from Ikea. Paul Brown has created a new, large revolving set which is impressive, and quite frankly, in itself, worth the price of this ticket. However, some bells and whistles for the set seem tossed in needlessly. For example, there are "disappearing steps" that slide in and out of a stone wall, and must be so tricky and dangerous to maneuver in the fake fog, that the cast must wear safety cables. But the oddest and most forced restructured scene comes in the finale, when Jacoby, as poor captive Raoul, must sing with the Phantom and Christine for what seems like 10 minutes, while he feigns struggling with the noose around this neck. This is when it seems less is more, especially when the line for crossing into campiness is just a catacomb's crawl away.
Tickets are $23 to $115 at (800) 775-2000 or broadwayinchicago.com or phantomoftheopera.com.