Donald Munro

Chandelier and all, newly revamped ‘Phantom’ (finally) swings into Fresno

Get a glimpse at 'Phantom' chandelier, costumes

Mitch Hodges, stage manager for the “Phantom of the Opera” at Fresno's Saroyan Theater, shows a featured fixture of the show, the 2,000-pound chandelier, and some of the costumes, some more than 20 years old.
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Mitch Hodges, stage manager for the “Phantom of the Opera” at Fresno's Saroyan Theater, shows a featured fixture of the show, the 2,000-pound chandelier, and some of the costumes, some more than 20 years old.

In terms of theater, there’s a lot you can do in New York that you can’t in Fresno: dozens of Broadway musicals and plays, hundreds more smaller productions, something to see every night of the week.

But I’ll tell you one thing you can’t do in New York starting this week: See the newest version of “The Phantom of the Opera.”

In the biggest touring event of the past few years, Fresno finally – after all these years – gets “Phantom,” including its famed swinging chandelier. The show opens Wednesday, Oct. 5, at a spruced-up Saroyan Theatre and will run a whopping 15 performances through Oct. 16 – a much bigger deal than the two-night, midweek stands to which we’re accustomed.

So what do we get that New York doesn’t?

This updated national tour of the show, which has been touring for a couple of years, has a darker and grittier feel in the backstage scenes, a revamped scenic design, new projections and other uses of technology, some (slightly) altered characters and more stage time for the Phantom himself. One benefit is that with more manageable sets, it’s financially feasible for the tour to visit medium-sized markets such as Fresno, though it’s still spectacular enough to play in bigger cities such as San Francisco.

What hasn’t changed is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score and book (written by Lloyd Webber with Richard Stilgoe), which has thrilled millions of audience members over the past 30 years. Still there, too, is that memorable chandelier – there’d probably be riots in the streets if they’d excised that bit of theater whimsy – and Maria Björnson’s original costumes.

None other than superstar producer Cameron Mackintosh (or Sir Cameron for short), who shepherded the original musical to an estimated $5.6 billion in worldwide gross receipts, stepped in to make sure the updated tour met his standards.

“I didn’t want to cut down or do a cheap version of the original splendid ‘Phantom,’ ” Mackintosh tells me by phone from London. (Just the idea that he’s doing phone interviews suggests his keen interest in protecting his brand.) “I wanted to reinvent a new way of doing it. I think, if anything, we’ve made it more emotional.”

Feisty Carlotta

One of the characters tweaked the most is Carlotta, the Paris Opera’s resident prima donna soprano. As portrayed in the original “Phantom,” Carlotta is usually in her 40s or 50s and a little past her prime as a singer. She’s clearly a less talented singer than Christine, the heroine of the show (and the one who falls for the mysterious Phantom lurking in the depths of the opera house).

For this updated version, however, it’s much more of an even match between Carlotta and Christine in terms of singing ability, which sharpens the tension between the two characters, says Jacquelynne Fontaine, who has been playing Carlotta on the road for almost three years. I talk to her by phone, this time from San Jose.

“When I got cast in the role I was 31,” Fontaine says. “They wanted a Carlotta who was in the prime of her career. People who see the show say, ‘I actually felt for Carlotta this time.’ She wasn’t the shrill diva that people think.”

This won’t be the first time she has been on the Saroyan stage. She won the title of Miss California in 2006, representing Santa Barbara County. Her talent? Singing opera, of course: Puccini’s “Vissi d’arte.”

“It’s going to be interesting to come back to the stage after visiting all these different cities and different theaters,” she says.

Fontaine’s mother used to live in Clovis and will be there once again in the Saroyan audience to see her daughter perform.

Phantom as tinkerer

Another character who is shaped a little differently in this newer touring production is the Phantom himself, played by Chris Mann, the recording artist whose big break came on TV’s “The Voice.” Mackintosh explains it this way: In the original “Phantom,” the title character had the sense of a mystical, slightly magical character.

“I wanted to look at Phantom the Man and the complex relationship between the Phantom and Christine (played alternately by Kaitlyn Davis and Katie Travis),” Mackintosh says.

The Phantom is complicated and a little dangerous. He’s also quite crafty. To that end, we get glimpses of the Phantom’s mechanical ingenuity in terms of how he creates his own special effects. Just call him the theater world’s most resourceful pack rat.

“You see more of the workings and mechanics of things,” says Laurence Connor, who directed the national tour. “You see that he’s taken things from operas and built his environment based on old set pieces.”

You also get to see the Phantom lurking around more on the edges of the action, often hidden in the shadows, Connor says.

Whenever you change something that is dear to people, there’s always a chance of a backlash, he adds. That’s happened in some cases with this new “Phantom.”

“You’re taking on something that people really feel is their property,” he says. “There will be people who see my production who don’t really like it at all for that reason.”

But for those people, there’s a silver lining: The original production, playing in New York in 1988, is still going strong.

It’s just that the trip to the theater will take you a little longer.

The Phantom of the Opera

Theater preview

Win tickets to ‘Phantom’

The Fresno Beehive is giving a way a pair of tickets to the Friday, Oct. 7, performance of “The Phantom of the Opera” to a lucky reader. To enter, go to www.fresnobeehive.com and follow the instructions on the contest post. Deadline is 5 p.m. Monday.

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