The new production of "The Phantom of the Opera" has been one of the most talked-about developments in American Theater this season.
But for "Phantom" veterans who have seen the current national tour, which has stopped in at the Straz Center For the Performing Arts for a three-week run, it must be obvious that the new elements are more tweaks than significant changes. It's still the same show, but the new elements add up to a difference in tone.
Director Laurence Connor has injected some desperately needed comic elements that help give Andrew Lloyd Webber's overblown melodrama a bit of the soul and humanity that the familiar version, directed by Hal Prince and dedicated more to spectacle than emotion, has always lacked.
Connor has also made the title character markedly less sympathetic. That, in turn, makes the story's love triangle less compelling. It never feels possible that Christine will choose the Phantom over her long-time love Raoul.
The most immediately obvious changes are in the sets. The iconic and spectacularly beautiful candle-lit underground lagoon is gone, replaced by a much-less-impressive stairway and the Phantom's completely unimpressive lair.
The ballroom set for the "Masquerade" scene is new also, with the staircase replaced by an elegant and attractive new ballroom. The set itself is no less beautiful, but the scene's choreography suffers.
One set change that really works is the addition of a claustrophobic business office for the opera that allows some chuckles as the Phantom send an endless stream of orders that clutter the space.
The biggest change in tone, though, comes in the operas-within-the opera. In the Harold Prince version, those operas were staged to look as though the people running the opera company were inept, which made the Phantom's demands seem to be motivated by a desire for artistic excellence. Here, those operas look like quality productions -- and Carlotta, the company's diva, is less buffoonish and sympathetic -- which makes the Phantom seems to be driven only by ego.
Also new are some tasty little touches, especially some scenes from the Phantom's childhood played out in projected shadows, and pyrotechnics added to the chandelier to liven up the tired effect of the chandelier's fall.
One change is inexplicable. The Phantom's face is not revealed to the audience until the end of the show. It plays as a change for the sake of change.
Director Connor has retained the opulent costumes from the original, and they're as impressive as ever.
The current cast includes a wonderful Christine, Katie Travis. She has the requisite look of innocence and the extreme vocal chops the role demands.
Chris Mann is less only OK as the Phantom. Mann's a rising star after reaching the finals on "The Voice" a couple of years ago, but his voice outshines his charisma as a stage actor.
Other standouts include Jacquelyne Fontaine (Carlotta) and Frank Viveros (Ubaldo).
The new production isn't going to win any new fans for "The Phantom of the Opera." Webber provides a soupcon of pretty melodies (repeated over and over) and a whole lot of plodding and hilariously overwrought songs that lack any joy or subtlety. (The title song, with its riff lifted directly from an old Pink Floyd track, is the most obvious example.) And the details of the plot are still hard to follow because it all unfolds through singing that's laden with extreme vibrato.
For to the non-fan, even the new production seems dated, a relic of that period a quarter-century ago when musical theater was dominated by ridiculously expensive musicals that took themselves too seriously.
But obviously, an awful lot of people love "The Phantom of the Opera." Its Broadway production will celebrate its 27th anniversary in a few weeks, and it national tour still pack theaters. The people who love the original version are likely to find at least as much to love about this new staging, and some will like it even more.
At the very least, it's kind of fascinating to see how the tone of a famaliar musical can be altered without changing a single lyric or note.
Details: Through, Jan. 4, Straz Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N. MacInnes Place, Tampa. Show times: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $45-$128.50 plus service charge and up. Information: 813-229-7827, strazcenter.org.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.