A New York-area writer friend reviewed The Phantom of the Opera when it opened on Broadway in 1988, telling me off the record that she thought the Andrew Lloyd Webber score was the best thing “since, like, baseball was invented or something.” Like any self-respecting baseball psychotic, I ran out and scored the Phantom soundtrack, promising my bud a Yankees game if it was everything she said. I deliberately went out on a limb, because I despise the Yankees the way God hates humanity—but an oath's an oath, and I made good on mine two summers later amid the memory of some pretty decent tunes.
The Tigers beat the Yanks 13-2. In a very public act of forbearance, God had thrown His failed creatures another bone.
If you go to the current Broadway/San Diego Phantom, you might be equally jazzed by the music. If you don't see much theater overall, the spectacle will certainly hold your attention. But if you put this piece in its proper context, you could come away markedly less than satisfied, as I did. Phantom, after all, won eight Tonys and is the longest-running musical in Broadway history (close to 8,500 performances)—but amid Broadway's glut of mindless distractions, those distinctions lose a lot of their luster. Like so many other shows in its camp, this Phantom dazzles, incites and arrests through its musical inventiveness and technical sleight of hand.
And never—not one single time—does it really and truly move.
The title and story are pretty much part of pop consciousness through the Lon Chaney silent film, the Gaston Leroux novel and/or, of course, the play, which Lloyd Webber wrote with Richard Stilgoe. Eric, the Phantom of the Opera (Richard Todd Adams), horribly disfigured in a mishap with acid, pines for singer Christine Daae (Marni Raab), who's busily rehearsing a dorky opera on the life of military commander Hannibal. The Phantom, no artistic slouch himself, absconds with Christine for a few voice lessons; he declares she's head and shoulders better than the load of crap she's in, and he wouldn't be above convincing her with a tumble in the hay (all in the name of romance, of course).
Sadly, that last part ain't to be—and Christine escapes the Phantom's murky lair, the latter's unrequited love proving too much for his aching heart.
Stilgoe and Lloyd Webber do have the right idea—they've created an almost overly simplistic story, in the mold of operatic tradition. Director Hal Prince, far and away history's leading Tony winner (21), stages the Hannibal piece to its cornball hilt. It's as vapid and silly as the Phantom thinks it is, and Prince stages it perfectly amid the late Maria Bjornson's garish production design and Gillian Lynne's wacky choreography.
Beyond that (and aside from the outstanding tune “The Music of the Night”), this show couldn't care less about the basics. It spends nowhere near enough time fleshing out the Phantom's disfigurement, let alone his prior relationship with Christine (if any), to make the two characters the least bit interesting as people. In turn, many of the other roles ring hollow, as do the characters' interactions. Similarly, it's one thing to exit the Phantom at the end in a nifty display of technical prowess; it's another to draw a part that rises to the level of such wizardry. It's mighty tough to pick up on character strength if the nuances are in such short supply. By contrast, such subtleties and long-held techniques invariably determine the outcome at a baseball game. And if the Yankees lose, so much the better. This review is based on the matinée performance of July 19. The Phantom of the Opera runs through Aug. 10 at the Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Ave., Downtown. $25-$125. 619-570-1100 or www.broadwaysd.com.