A Night at the Opera

Phantom of the Opera arrives at Jones Hall, via the NationsBank Houston Broadway Series, with inescapable hype. Andrew Lloyd Webber, hit composer of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita and the ubiquitous Cats, wrote the music and co-wrote the book. Harold Prince, winner of 16 Tony Awards and responsible as producer or director for seemingly every noteworthy musical of the past 40 years, from West Side Story to Cabaret, from Jerry Bock/Sheldon Harnick collaborations to eight Sondheim productions, directed it. Since opening in London in 1986, Phantom has broken every box-office record. It generated a record $18 million in advance ticket sales before its 1988 Broadway debut and $15 million in advances for its 1989 opening in L.A. as well as for the first national touring production, in Chicago, 1990. It won every major British theater award, seven Tonys -- including Best Musical -- seven Drama Desk Awards and three Outer Critics Circle Awards. The original London recording was the first cast album in British musical history to enter the charts at number one and has since gone gold and platinum in Britain and the U.S. So many people flocked to Phantom in Denver, Atlanta and Fort Lauderdale that business writers in those cities' newspapers raved about how it boosted local economies.

Phantom's being such a cash cow might make some wary that it's a kitschy attraction, a la the Radio City Music Hall holiday events. Not to worry. It most certainly is a must-see show, but not for the expected reasons.

Strangely enough, Phantom's star is not Lloyd Webber's music. Though the wildly successful composer has always had an undeniable gift for lovely melodies -- evidenced here by the delicate "Think of Me" and the passionate "The Music of the Night" -- the score is largely unmemorable, even innocuous. While not opera, the music is full of 19th-century pastiches of the form that, though they're pleasant and melodious and on-target, seem generic. To a degree, Charles Hart's cliche-ridden lyrics make Lloyd Webber guilty by association, but the fact remains that the composer has yet to find a lyricist up to the standard of his old partner Tim Rice. Taken by itself, Phantom's sound, like most of Lloyd Webber's post-Rice output, has effective ripples, not waves.

Director Prince knows this and compensates wondrously, which makes him the real star of the show. Through sheer -- and glorious -- theatricality, the impresario turns Phantom into a display so magical that those who fear that old-fashioned musicals are dying will breathe easy. By tapping into our subconscious in ways Lloyd Webber, Hart and Richard Stilgoe (Lloyd Webber's collaborator on the show's book) mostly don't, Prince replicates the seductive, mysterious atmosphere at the heart of Gaston Leroux's ardent 1910 novel on which the musical (as well as numerous film treatments) is based. It's not just a touristy gimmick that a one-ton chandelier decorated with 35,000 beads picks itself up from the stage floor at the story's beginning, swooping over orchestra seats in an ascent to the auditorium ceiling. Or that there are heavy grand drapes of primary colors hanging from a second-rate opera house replete with first-rate melodramatic characters. Or that there's a dusky dungeon, with automated candelabra and thunderous church organ, that the Phantom travels to by gondola over dry-ice waters as if crossing some Freudian River Styx. Prince elicits the feel -- the allure -- of this most fundamental story.

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The famous plot tells of the hideously deformed Phantom -- a desperately lonely composer, architect and illusionist -- who lurks in the bowels of the Paris Opera, exercising a reign of terror over all the occupants. Except for one: Christine, the beautiful and talented young soprano with whom he's in love. Becoming her mentor, her angel of music, so that she will sing for his needy soul, he manipulates the impressionable girl in ways far different from, though no less intense than, the ways he manipulates the hammy diva, tubby tenor, sinister ballet mistress, young ballerinas and money-seeking business managers forming the company. Phantom's essential tension derives from what happens when the beast is unmasked by the beauty.

But the words and music treat the myth too lightly. The triangle of the Phantom, Christine and Raoul, her childhood sweetheart, is established in record time. The ballad "Think of Me" is awkwardly introduced when new owners, interrupting the action, ask the resident diva to favor them with song. The Phantom sings of his resolve in the obvious and uninspired "The Point of No Return." The opening scene is totally unnecessary, and Act Two jumps ahead six months for no justifiable reason.

But Prince makes the production as spectacular -- and viable and substantial -- as possible. He has the caped Phantom ride like an avenging angel upon one of the gargoyles atop the opera house's gilded proscenium once he has discovered that Christine requites Raoul's love. He also throws the Phantom's voice from various places at the back of the audience, and he evokes powerful theatrical symbols: a mannequined Christine, wearing a wedding dress, appears in a cracked mirror in the shadowy dungeon that serves as the Phantom's heart of darkness and prison of the mind. Andrew Bridge's moody lighting is stunningly evocative, the chiaroscuro both intimate and forbidding. Maria Bjsrnson's production design alone is almost worth the price of admission: the stage is literally unwrapped as the show begins. In addition to colorful Egyptian and gypsy backdrops for the operas within the show, the New Year's Eve masquerade party on the staircase of the opera house also deserves mention: the scene, truly glittering, takes the breath away.

Grant Norman, as the Phantom, doesn't. Though a competent, occasionally hypnotic singer, he doesn't embody the physical presence crucial to making the Phantom undeniable, sympathetic, even alluring. The Phantom, besides being an ethereal composer and a deranged killer in the name of love, should exude panache (one look at his sleek mask tells you that) and sensuality (look at his digs). He's a sensitive, off-centered soul, both awe-inspiring demigod and hubristic human, whom we feel for because he and the world have allowed appearances to muck things up. But Norman hounds the stage instead of haunts it; he's nowhere near the commanding-yet-tortured Phantom of that riveting originator with mesmerizing hands, Michael Crawford.

As Christine, Adrienne McEwan is especially winsome when singing, her burgeoning voice traveling up and down the scale delicately and fetchingly. John Schroeder disappoints, his Raoul more a reprimanding hero than a dashing one. Despite the occasional fuzzy enunciation, the supporting cast performs ably, particularly Geena L. Jeffries as the temperamental diva and Paul Jacobsen as the blowzy tenor. However, the dancing interludes come off as obligatory.

We experience emotional resonance, not to mention metaphoric grandeur, watching the Phantom perched on a huge gray mossy tomb, singing his desire to Christine, who's come to the imposing mausoleum to wish that her long-departed father were somehow here again. Despite the score's tendency to be a lush puffball and despite the titular lead's inspiring neither pity nor fear, a prince of a director has ensured that the show hearkens to the heyday of musical theater, when tugged heartstrings and escapist extravaganzas were in great demand, and great supply.

Phantom of the Opera runs through July 16 at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana, 629-3700.

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