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stage review

All that’s missing is a soul in ‘Phantom’

Cooper Grodin as The Phantom and Julia Udine as Christine Daae.

Matthew Murphy

Cooper Grodin as The Phantom and Julia Udine as Christine Daae.

It’s obvious from the lavish production of “The Phantom of the Opera’’ at the Boston Opera House that no expense or effort was spared in reimagining Andrew Lloyd Webber’s blockbuster musical. New staging, new sets, new choreography. All that’s missing is a soul.

That has always been the principal shortcoming of “Phantom,’’ and it remains so in this reconceived version of “Phantom,’’ which is now on a tour of North America.

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Granted, on the level of sheer spectacle, this “Phantom’’ is quite impressive, even dazzling at times. Every penny spent is evident onstage. The show is an opulent eyeful, an undeniable triumph of atmospherics and technical proficiency.

But so is your average Cirque du Soleil performance. We ask more than that from musical theater. Ideally, we are drawn into an emotional investment in the fates of the characters onstage. And this production’s new look cannot disguise or remedy the fact that “Phantom’’ simply lacks the power to move us.

The cast at the Opera House is a generally able one, especially Julia Udine, who brings a radiant energy to the role of the gifted soprano Christine. The notably youthful Cooper Grodin portrays the tormented and tormenting Phantom, a disfigured outcast who is obsessed with Christine and seeks to exert a Pygmalion-like control over her. Grodin doesn’t exude sufficient menace at first, but his command of the role increases as the evening goes on.

Jacquelynne Fontaine delivers a standout performance as Carlotta, the vain and temperamental prima donna, who is a less ludicrous figure in Fontaine’s portrayal than she usually is. Ben Jacoby is fine as Raoul, a childhood sweetheart of Christine’s who rekindles their romance and becomes the target of the Phantom’s jealous wrath.

In theory, there should be plenty of passion flying around the stage. But the love triangle seldom registers as truly sizzling in this production. More broadly, neither the cast’s vocal prowess nor the vigorous direction by Laurence Connor can surmount the leaden bombast and declamatory style that has always suffused and burdened “Phantom.’’

There are a few feeble attempts at a humanizing humor, but the overall tone is insistently lugubrious. Lloyd Webber and lyricist Charles Hart crafted no equivalent to “A Little Priest,’’ from Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd,’’ or “Master of the House,’’ from “Les Miserables’’: witty showstoppers that manage to simultaneously pierce and intensify the darkness. In “Phantom,’’ by contrast, what you get is a nearly unrelenting solemnity — not to be confused with seriousness — whether in the score or in the book by Lloyd Webber and Richard Stilgoe.

This is probably the point to note that many people hold a much more favorable view of “Phantom’’ than yours truly, to judge by its staggering global popularity. More than 130 million people have seen the show since its London debut in 1986, with 65,000 performances in 30 countries, according to press materials. If you’re a “Phantom’’ devotee, you’re not likely to be disappointed by the touring production at the Opera House.

Patrons beware, though: The famous plunge of the chandelier climaxes in a shower of soft plastic shards meant to simulate crystal (one of which ended up on my knee on opening night).

While the storyline remains the same, there have been changes within key scenes (no spoilers here), mostly having to do with emphasis and interpretation. Connor makes significant use of Paul Brown’s new sets, especially a hulking, rotating, lighthouse-shaped cylinder that has stairs clinging to its side. “Phantom’’ fans may have a grand old time debating the revised staging.

Of course, many signature elements remain the same. Thundering keyboards announce the arrival of a predictable high point: the pulsing title tune, well performed by Udine and Grodin. Throughout the show, the skilled orchestra, performing under the direction of Richard Carsey, creates a lush sound, though they occasionally overpower the singers.

The production has smartly retained the late Maria Bjornson’s resplendent costumes. They create a vibrantly colorful portrait in “Masquerade/Why So Silent?’’, which features the entire company and unfolds at a masquerade ball, beneath a mirrored ceiling.

Like much of the production, it looks great. Then again, it’s not craftsmanship but rather a sense of real connection that has always been the problem with “Phantom.’’

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.
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