‘Phantom of the Opera,’ ‘So You Think You Can Dance?’ and ‘Marvel Universe Live’

Orlando experiences a renaissance of touring entertainment

When I covered last month's grand opening of downtown Orlando's impressive new Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, I expressed some healthy skepticism about how the center would actually benefit local grass-roots artists and organizations, most of whom are unlikely to ever be able to afford a rental in the new facility. Judging by a recent anonymous Orlando Sentinel survey of area arts leaders that elicited similar comments, I'm not the only person with concerns; I'm just one of the few publicly putting my name on them. But now that the Center's activities are in full swing, I'm happy to report some encouraging early signs for the partnership between Dr. Phillips and Orlando's arts community.

It started symbolically at the Broadway & Beyond grand premiere gala Nov. 15, which was headlined by Edgewater High School alumnus Norm Lewis, best known as Broadway's first African-American Phantom of the Opera. Lewis was joined by fellow Great White Way luminaries like Sierra Boggess, Michael Urie and Deborah Voigt, but it was a quartet of precocious local teens – Abigail Marotta, Sarah Mills, Kristen Brock and Naomi Gomez – who stole the show with a Wicked medley of Oz tunes. (FYI, I watched the show from the extreme end of the top balcony and could see everything, boding well for the building's sight lines.)

Even for local performers never likely to sing from the new Walt Disney stage, there are promising developments regarding their role in the Dr. Phillips facility. This year's Creative City Project benefited from Dr. Phillips' financial support, and the Fringe has also been promised a donation. This week, the Center's arts school got started with sample classes, though names of local educators involved weren't available at press time. Most exciting, CEO Kathy Ramsberger announced a plan to give local performers free use of the Center's rehearsal hall on "dark" nights; again, details are still TBD.

Of course, my emphasis on local artists doesn't discount the importance of quality touring productions, once again abundant in Orlando. The Fairwinds Broadway Across America series debuted at the Center last week with the most entertaining production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera I've experienced since seeing NYC's original in the late '80s. Director Laurence Connor, with scenic designer Paul Brown and lighting designer Paule Constable, completely reimagined the show's sets and staging for optimal clarity and velocity, much as he did with his marvelously muscular 25th anniversary production of Les Miserables.

It's a bold move to mess with beloved elements like the Phantom's lair (Indiana Jones-esque disappearing steps instead of floating candles) and the "Masquerade" staircase (at least the department-store dummies are gone too), even when you have an explosive new chandelier, dynamic video effects and most of Maria Bjornson's Tony-winning original costumes. But the updates succeed in part due to the energized cast, led by reality star Chris Mann's title turn; he brings pop-star power to the stage, and while he needs more chemistry with Katie Travis' Christine (fresh in the role and appealingly innocent, unlike Sarah Brightman's brittle interpretation), their closeness in age makes the doomed romance less absurd than usual. Best of all, thanks to Dr. Phillips' exceptional surround-sound acoustics, for the first time ever I could understand every syllable of notoriously wordy numbers like "Notes."

Phantom will be followed this month by The Book of Mormon, and solo superstars like Bill Maher, Idina Menzel and Jerry Seinfeld are scheduled. But Dr. Phillips isn't Orlando's only center for top touring talent; I recently enjoyed the sold-out So You Think You Can Dance? tour from the leather seats of Hard Rock Live's VIP balcony, a luxury experience I highly recommend. And don't forget the Amway Center, which will ring in the New Year with Billy Joel. Though the Amway's construction also courted controversy, it's hard to hate the venue after attending events like last weekend's Marvel Universe Live.

Months ago, I saw a dress rehearsal of Feld Entertainment's new superhero spectacle in Tampa, and I'm impressed how time – and an excellent venue – improved the experience. In Marvel Universe Live, the Avengers team up to save some X-Men from Loki and his villainous lackeys; it's a stunt-stuffed extravaganza of aerial effects, kung-fu and pyro. Thanks to licensing looniness, you'll never see Iron Man, Spider-Man and Wolverine together on the silver screen as you do on this tour. Pacing plods in the talky first act, and the lip-synced script is more like Avengers Assemble cartoons than Marvel Cinematic Universe movies. But the 7-year-old boy sitting next to me declared it "awesome!" (through a mouthful of $12 popcorn), especially the stilt-costumed Hulk's smashing finale. Who am I to argue?

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