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Center Stage

“The biggest ever, with grit and grandeur”

9/10/2014

“The Phantom of  the Opera,” Des Moines Performing Arts. Des Moines Civic Center, Sept. 10-21. Shows Wed.-Sat. 7:30 p.m.; Sat. 2 p.m. (also at 2 p.m. on Thurs. Sept. 11, only);  Sun. 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.

“The Phantom of the Opera,” Des Moines Performing Arts. Des Moines Civic Center, Sept. 10-21. Shows Wed.-Sat. 7:30 p.m.; Sat. 2 p.m. (also at 2 p.m. on Thurs. Sept. 11, only); Sun. 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.

Quick: Name the single most lucrative piece of entertainment ever. The single biggest earner — movie, CD, whatever. “Avatar?” Wrong planet. “Thriller?” Deader than disco. No. 1 is the show now at the Civic Center, “Phantom of the Opera.”

“It’s such a humongous spectacle,” declared Edward Staudenmayer, one of the leads. “I mean, the grandeur of it.”

Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical has grossed some $5.5 billion since 1986 when it first hit London. That’s the longest string of show biz zeroes by far. And before you say “size doesn’t matter,” consider that this one’s still growing. Twenty-five years after its New York opening, “Phantom” continues to sell out on Broadway — and if you happen to be in Bangkok, you can catch it there, too. In Thai. On top of that, the current U.S. tour has a whole new look and feel.

“This one has things you won’t see on Broadway,” revealed Staudenmayer.

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Staudenmayer plays Monsieur André, one of the Opera managers. The role is unusual for “Phantom,” a comic turn. By and large, the drama suggests Jack the Ripper as imagined by Poe — operatic indeed. Its title character is a disfigured musical genius holed up in the Paris subcellars, circa 1860. Once he discovers Christine, the singer of his dreams, he has no compunctions about killing whoever stands between them. And this tour’s new design intensifies the blood, the obsession.

“It’s grittier, edgier. It doesn’t stint on gore,” said Staudenmayer.

The scenic designer for this production is Paul Brown, and Staudenmayer described his work as “less a pure fantasy. It’s got more of the old-city feel, the stones and shadows.” The same effect turns up in other elements. The Phantom’s hideaway is less of a palace, and the dancers look more tarty.

Staudenmayer of course remains a “huge fan” of the original, but he points out that, since ’86, theater technology improved. A crucial prop, for instance, is the opera chandelier — a weapon of mass murder, potentially — and Staudenmayer boasted: “Ours has a lot more bells and whistles than the old one.”

More importantly, the show’s new realism allows for a greater depth of character. Playing Christine is a prodigy, Julia Udine, only 21, and Staudenmayer emphasized how this production “allows you to see where she’s coming from.” Both Christine and the Phantom enjoy “more psychological development.”

“I mean, you can see why the Phantom falls for her,” he said. What most impressed Staudenmayer about Udine, however, is her singing and dancing. So too, when asked the secret to the show’s success, he answered quickly: “Well, the music.”

This tour comes with its own conductor and musicians, and in Des Moines they’ll add a dozen or so locals, bringing an orchestral fullness to signature numbers like “Think of Me” and “The Music of the Night.”

A “Phantom,” in other words, of both grit and grandeur. CV

Overheard in the Lobby: This season’s smaller shows include the monthly Readings at the Playhouse, among them the 9/11 drama “Recent Tragic Events.”

John Domini is Cityview’s “Play Mate” theater critic who pens our weekly Center Stage column. He is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.

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