Applause and Effects

When that broken-down, opera-sized chandelier lying on the stage flies out over the audience and up to the ceiling in The Phantom of the Opera, it's enough to justify the price of admission. The special effects in the Broadway road show of Andrew Lloyd Webber's extravaganza, now at the Buell Theatre, are absolutely magical. You get all the fun of a David Copperfield show, along with a cool story line--and it ain't over till the big monster sings.

Thankfully, this production has more than special effects to recommend it: The voices are very good, the music is simple but tuneful and the whole thing drips with nostalgia for the darker elements of fairy tales. In this gothic story, the Phantom is the Beast and Christine Daae is the Beauty. But this Beast finds no redemption from his ugliness, and this Beauty is not as magnanimous as her prototype.

Of course, the original Beast was never a psycho killer, either--just a prince under a spell--and Beauty could see through his grotesque physique to his great heart. In Lloyd Webber's version of the myth, based on the novel by Gaston Leroux, the phantom is an aesthete--a composer and music teacher who selects Christine as his protege. The way he chooses to promote her career is highly unorthodox--not to mention patriarchal and insane--but then, this guy's a few notes short of a solo.

Not surprisingly, the Phantom falls in love with Christine, and it's fairly clear that if the freak had been as good-looking as her boyfriend, Raoul, she would have returned the favor. She does point out at the end of the play, when he has both her and Raoul at his mercy, that she no longer fears his face; it's his soul that repels her. He has killed for her--too often and too easily. And now he threatens her with Raoul's death; she can choose to stay with him in the darkness, or she can watch Raoul hang. Christine takes a little too long to make up her mind, but when she passionately kisses the Phantom sans mask, thereby igniting his conscience, she wins her freedom as well as her lover's. Cue the last special effect of the evening--the Phantom's spectacular disappearing act.

As a companion pointed out, Christine and Raoul are both pretty tepid and uninteresting; it's the Phantom who matters. Rick Hilsabeck plays him for sexual presence and ego layered with vulnerability. Hilsabeck has a fabulous, rich voice--capable of both a low rumble and a thin thread in the upper registers. It's his ability to move gracefully from that thin thread--almost a whine, really--to the sonorous, powerful depths that distinguishes his performance and secures our sympathy. Sandra Joseph makes a lovely Christine--her voice has a clarity that makes her believable as an opera singer--and Lawrence Anderson is as sympathetic a Raoul as possible, given the impotent nature of the role.

There is plenty of comic relief throughout this rock opera, but it's no comedy, even though it has a "happy" ending. The piece clearly belongs to the gothic-horror genre, traditionally a splendid arena for examining moral and spiritual issues. But its one real problem is that it has neither moral nor spiritual depth. While there is some intelligence at work in the storytelling, a large part of the show's appeal lies in its fascination with vaguely sadomasochistic sexual fantasy. The Phantom is Christine's "master" as well as her secret and strange "angel," who resides "inside her mind" as a source of sexual power, and who comes to her "in dreams." His song "Music of the Night" is all about unleashing sensation, and just in case you didn't get the point earlier, his duet with Christine, "The Point of No Return," hits you over the head with it.

When Christine goes off with Raoul, the "normal" love interest, it's disappointing because Raoul is such a bore compared to the Phantom--who, after all, is a genius, if mad as a hatter. Webber wants you to believe she's better off with Raoul, but he fails to convince us of that in the play. Instead, he spends most of his time romanticizing the Phantom's sensuality, even glorifying the subterranean bachelor pad where Christine is lured. "Let your darkest side give in" is the questionable message of the show; of course, the dark side is not nearly so rewarding in real life.

But this is a musical. You're not supposed to think too much about it. And there's more than enough spectacle here to make not thinking about it a very pleasant experience.

The Phantom of the Opera, through March 1 at the Buell Theatre, in the Plex at 14th and Curtis, 893-4100.

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