The Phantom Strikes Again!

On January 26, 1988 at the Majestic Theatre in New York, I was privileged to attend the opening of one of the greatest theatrical spectacles ever to grace a stage, a show that featured thrilling and innovative music wedded to a delicately woven romantic plot. Putting aside my own elitist literary airs, I could not disavow the majesty and the glory of Andrew Lloyd Webber's most affecting work since Jesus Christ Superstar -- The Phantom of the Opera. Like so many other audience members, I fell under the spell of the towering presence and astonishing tenor voice of Michael Crawford; I was dazzled by such special effects as flying chandeliers, underground lakes, and seamlessly shifting sets, each set change moving into view almost as though propelled by magic. (Admittedly, despite her strong singing, I was somewhat less thrilled by the bland presence and disquieting Minnie Mouse-like appearance of then Mrs. Lloyd Webber, Sarah Brightman, as the heroine Christine.)

One of my greatest disappointments came after I moved to South Florida and saw the road show version of Phantom at the Broward Center of the Performing Arts in the spring of 1991. With a listless cast, loose timing, and a venue that seemed to dwarf the show's subtle, haunting tone, Phantom seemed in this poor production to be another pretender; a pretense to art rather than the real thing. I reasoned that at the Majestic I had been fooled by director Harold Prince's special effects. Tricked by flickering lanterns and exquisite costumes, I'd misjudged the merits of the work. Only that gorgeous score -- the best Lloyd Webber ever produced, to this day -- remained transcendent.

I wondered why originally I had been so enchanted by Lloyd Webber's re-telling of the 1911 Gaston Leroux novel about a deformed composer who hides out in the subterranean world of a Paris opera house and falls in love with a young soprano named Christine Daae. Songs such as "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again," "The Music of the Night," "All I Ask of You," and "Think of Me" certainly helped; the strength of these melodies stayed with me long afterwards. But whatever flame ignited in my mind that night at the Majestic didn't burn again at Broward. It was, therefore, with some reluctance I attended this third opening of the piece at the Jackie Gleason Theater.

Lo and behold, as they say in fairy tales, the grandness had returned. A new Phantom, a perfect Christine, and a show that flows with the ease of a prima ballerina brought back all my initial feelings about Lloyd Webber's masterpiece -- a title I'm now ready to bestow upon the show.

Professional duty required me to review this latest production, but there was another factor, too: my mother. Yes, my mother. She had recently relocated to South Florida and had not seen a major musical since Hello Dolly.

For the last six years, fueled by brief glimpses on television, she'd hummed the music and dreamed about seeing the Phantom in action. And, I'm pleased to report, she has not stopped talking favorably about it since seeing it at the Gleason theater. Through her wide-eyed wonder I was able to witness the effect Lloyd Webber at his best has on the public at large. Far from being a jaded reviewer, she felt free to gasp when the chandelier fell from the ceiling and tumbled onto the stage, to become teary at the final resolution of the strange love between the Phantom and Christine.

Sometimes it's good for the reviewer to see the impact this mythic work has on a novice viewer. It helps to remind me why the piece has become such a classic, its name carved forever in the history of musical theater. It's so terribly facile and fashionable these days to dismiss Lloyd Webber's sometimes saccharine approach and his empty story lines. While his composing and playwriting flaws may be glaring in such other shows as Aspects of Love or Starlight Express, Phantom is in a different class. Like the best musicals, it offers a solid score, excellent lyrics (by Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe), and an interesting, emotionally involving book (by Charles Stilgoe and Andrew Lloyd Webber).

The show possesses its share of glitches, too, although they are relatively minor ones. Several group singing scenes between the opera house owners and their prima donna soprano Carlotta are confusing, excessively long, and add little to the dramatic action. More than three people singing at one time may show off Lloyd Webber's composing expertise, since it's no small feat to wind many different lines into the same melody, but the audience can't hear what anyone is singing about. Furthermore, Act One is infinitely stronger than Act Two, and possesses all the good music (except for "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again").

Still, Hal Prince's direction ably serves this tale of bittersweet love and loss, allowing the emotions of the characters to rightfully overshadow the plot. Christine, who recently lost her father, looks for a substitute in the Phantom. Her new lover, Raoul, appears to be her second choice, even though he is young and handsome -- and the Phantom is physically withered and mutilated. And the creature of the night himself, though capable of vicious deeds, never fails to invoke the audience's respect and sympathy, both for his plight as a disabled, shunned member of society and for his vast musical gifts.

As Christine, young Sarah Pfisterer is by far the best singer and actress in this role I have ever seen. Her voice soars, her honesty touches the soul, and her beauty is breathtaking, making the Phantom's and Raoul's devotion fully believable. Nat Chandler as Raoul is also commanding and convincing as an actor; his large, excellent physique overpowers Rick Hilsabeck as the Phantom, which may be my only quarrel with this production. Hilsabeck certainly possesses a voice as good as if not better than that of the charismatic Michael Crawford, but he is very young, very mild in the role, and very short. I mention the last physical feature because if the Phantom is not a striking figure (as Crawford made him), I'm not sure why Christine has any problem choosing between the ghastly ghost and Raoul. Hilsabeck moves fluidly and vocalizes like an angel, but the overall persona he evokes is one of a pathetic deformed man, not a romantic hero. It's certainly a valid interpretation of the script, but I don't think it's the one Lloyd Webber intended and it certainly isn't one that draws me into the romantic dilemma of the piece.

Hilsabeck's deficiencies aside, the supporting cast excels, especially Olga Talyn (who's been in this role since the Majestic) as the darkly clad dance mistress, Madame Giry, who seems to know more than anyone else about the Phantom. Talyn infuses sinister energy into her mysterious character and still makes each vocal and speaking note ring true. Patricia Hurd as the bitchy Carlotta is suitably shrill in voice and personality, and Michael DeVries as one of the opera house's hapless owners, Monsieur Andre, injects verve into a somewhat bland role.

Of course, the lighting, set design, and costuming are fabulous; even the sound is surprisingly clear in the acoustically deprived Gleason theater. If you've never seen The Phantom of the Opera, then by all means catch this production. If you've seen it here before at Broward and were disappointed, try again. The music of the night will softly, gently weave its way under your skin this time.

Stage Notes
Get set for action, adventure, comedy, heartbreak, and excitement -- you know, all those things the movies don't deliver any more -- in the Florida theater world starting next week. On October 24, the Caldwell Theatre Company in Boca opens Someone to Watch Over Me, a powerhouse Broadway hit about hostage-taking and its aftermath. Shear Madness formally opens on October 27 with all its wacky interactive fun at the Off-Broadway Theatre in Wilton Manors; Chaplin, a musical about the great Charlie, enjoys its world premiere on October 30 at the Shores Performing Arts Theatre in Miami Shores, with opening night guest host Jane Chaplin offering some insights about her father; and finally, ACME's classic, super-serious drama The Elephant Man opens at the Colony Theater on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach on October 31 (bring mask to the after-show party if you like).

Despite the recent departures of three key figures at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, one administrator remains remarkably resilient. It looks as though Miami's own artistic Teflon man, the controversial Arnold Mittelman, will be staying in his job for at least for three more years, having received a lengthy contract renewal from the board of directors.

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