Flash and the Phantom

It's true. There's about a gajillion Phantom of the Opera fans in this world. And pretty close to half of them must live right here in the Bayou City. Just hang out in the lobby of Houston's Jones Hall during the show's intermission and you'll spot 'em -- or hear them, rather. They're the ones who know the show so well that they hum it.

But don't let that popularity scare you away from a first-time Phantom fix. Yes, the show is huge and ostentatious and melodramatic. And yes, Andrew Lloyd Webber's revamped version of Gaston Leroux's novel has all the intellectual depth of a weepy romance novel. But hey, Phantom is just a musical, after all, and this production, directed by Harold Prince -- one of the musical theater's princes -- has all the pyrotechnic flash, gothically gorgeous sets and lusciously rich singing voices it needs to keep anyone but the most resolute naysayer transfixed.

The show opens in 1911, in the middle of an auction on the stage of the rundown Parisian Opera House. A sad nostalgia pervades the scene. Dark, broad Victorian drapes hang heavy and faded at the proscenium's edge. Everything must go, even that wind-up musical toy. When it plays, we predictably travel back to those long-ago days when this theater was flush with activity, music and, most of all, conflict.

And once we get back to 1881, we go everywhere in this theater. Maria Bjsrnson's sets take us from the mirrored dressing room to the opera house's romantic rooftop to an actor's view of the stage, then down into the watery depths of the vapory underground lair of the Phantom. Each set is more magical than the next. Enormous sweeping drapes of the deepest wines and crimsons, each hemmed with tassels and fringe, cascade from the highest reaches of the theater. The Victorians were the original materialists of the Industrial Age, and Bjsrnson delights in the period's absolute indulgence.

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The Phantom (Brad Little) has furnished his secret cavernous home with leftovers scrounged from the theater: a great glistening candelabra, a bellowing organ and shards of a broken mirror (of course!). He is, after all, horrifically disfigured, and wears a half-mask to cover himself from the world.

He falls in love with a young, talented and innocent chorus girl, Christine Daae (Amy Jo Arrington). Just as Christine is about to go off with a new beau, Raoul (Jim Weitzer), the Phantom appears, complete with significant music, and carries her off into his mysterious world to give her a singing lesson she won't soon forget.

And really, you can't help but root for the guy. The Phantom's the artistic, eccentric type. He's got the heart of a poet, and man, oh man, can this guy sing. Brad Little's Phantom has the kind of voice almost any woman would want to slide right down and live inside for a long, long time. And Christine is absolutely mesmerized by the music he makes. Not that she isn't pretty good herself: Amy Jo Arrington sings with a sweet richness that seems perfect for a rising opera star.

Unfortunately, Christine can't keep her hands to herself. When she yanks off his mask to find out what she's dealing with ... well, let's just say she's either kind of shallow or she didn't like him all that much in the first place. For whatever reason, she's had enough of her music lesson for the night.

Back she goes through the strange and amazing underground waterways that brought her here. Andrew Bridge's lighting conjures a sense of gothic-monstery suspense as our characters roam through tunnels, up and down long sets of stairways, behind the gas footlights and on the romantic rooftops of a star-lit Paris.

Christine opts for the boring-but-nice business guy. And naturally, the outraged Phantom goes about misbehaving the way monster/madmen do when they're jilted. And, well, you'll just have to see it to find out what happens. Suffice it to say, the woman sitting next to me came equipped with a box of tissues.

The show is opulent, the singing is inspired and even the cornball jokes might make you smile.

The Phantom of the Opera runs through July 12 at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana, 227-3974.

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