Angst in the Catacombs

It's time to revisit the Phantom, that chandelier, and all the rest of your favorites.

The Phantom of the Opera through June 24 at the Allen Theatre, 1407 Euclid Avenue, Playhouse Square. 216-241-6000 or 800-766-6048
Berea native Rebecca Pitcher, swooning over an ugly guy in a mask.
Berea native Rebecca Pitcher, swooning over an ugly guy in a mask.
As we embark on the new century, one truth holds: Everyone still wants to see Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera. A pair of tickets is a talisman, guaranteeing its owner a choice of A-list dates.

Even after more than a dozen years, the show still casts its spell on Phantom veterans and virgins alike. Diehard cynics are the only holdouts. For the rest of us, we're transported out of reality into a lush Victorian Gothic.

In front of us is a stage festooned in ghostly faded drapes. The time is 1911, and an auction is in progress. The aged Vicomte de Chagny, hunched and feeble in his wheelchair, buys a mechanical monkey that bangs out a plaintive tune, eliciting a bittersweet memory. This prologue is a wonderful touch, adding extra dimension to the story and skillfully paralleling the novel's flashback structure. Suddenly, the flashiest Broadway star since Ethel Merman is uncovered -- the chandelier, "a remnant from the strange case of "The Phantom of the Opera,'" as the auctioneer intones. When it's set ablaze in a puff of smoke, preceded by a blast of organ music, it commences to rise to its original glory. We are now at the Paris Opera House, 30 years earlier. This is the show's first pyrotechnic miracle, hurling the audience back to the days of their Saturday matinee fantasies, when anything seemed possible and miracles and Milk Duds went together.

The first section of the musical is devoted to a clever parody of 19th-century opera. It's stuffed with a panoply of wedding-cake costumes, overheated ballet, comic quintets, and a papier-mâché pachyderm. Lloyd Webber takes delight in presenting a posturing prima donna and hammy baritones singing pastiches of Verdi, Mozart, and Meyerbeer.

His score is a jewel box of sparkling rhinestone and sequin bagatelles, effectively shimmering with artificial radiance borrowed from the masters, ranging from Frederick Loewe to Puccini. They are wildly effective in the context of the story, but are painfully shallow removed from the glory of their theatrical trappings. Aficionados may thrive on these esoteric allusions; the majority of us gloat on the spectacle: the lovely heroine, the dashing hero, and of course, the tragic villain.

The musical's astronomical success is due in large part to the shrewd extrapolation of the Gothic essence of Gaston Leroux's pulp novel masterpiece Le Fantôme de L'Opéra (1911). Lloyd Webber and his co-creators (lyricist Charles Hart, co-book writer Richard Stilgoe) have captured the novel's grand passion -- the obsessive love of a deformed, maniacal genius for an innocent young opera singer. Lloyd Webber was wise enough not to parody Leroux's lush variation of Beauty and the Beast, rather reinventing it for modern palates. He plunders the past and the present, spoofing generic 19th-century operetta with the beat and drives of disco. Making it all work is Harold Prince's slick, high-octane direction, which gives the show its remarkable drive, and Maria Björnson's radiant sets and costumes.

All this coalesces into a billion-dollar aphrodisiac, which is so intoxicating it blinds audiences to the show's charming anachronisms. The title number is as nutty as anything out of a Marx brothers skit. The diabolical Phantom has snatched his Christine, and in a flash, the music switches from ersatz Victoriana to a driving beat of seduction worthy of Saturday Night Fever. We almost expect the heroine to rip off her frilly bustle and boogie the night away with her captor.

While they sail over subterranean lakes, drums beat and the synthesizers twang. As they declare their unity, it's a tossup whether we're privy to Gothic passion or just camp. We can envision the ghost of Leroux knitting his brows in confusion, for onstage is an unlikely alliance between a novelist and a composer of vastly different sensibilities. The magic alchemy of this show is that it all unexpectedly works.

How, you might ask, does the present touring company compare to that of Toronto, New York, and the other two Cleveland incarnations of this opus? Well, it is musical theater's greatest example of capitalism triumphant, and the producers surely aren't going to endanger their nest egg by peopling the stage with incompetent twits. The cast is strong enough to project humanity and humor over all the technical wizardry. Since the roles are rigidly cast in mask-like prototypical molds, too much individuality would get in the way.

Amid a cast large enough to populate Chagrin Falls, Ted Keegan's Phantom reaches the apex of masochism, as he crawls across the floor of his catacomb like a wounded knight errant begging for a crumb of compassion from his beloved captive. He exults in using his fine tenor to elicit terror and pity, grandly living up to the promise of a difficult role. Rebecca Pitcher, a prodigy out of Berea, has a pure bel canto soprano, making her the most sweetly sung and poignant Christine we have encountered since the show first hit Erie shores.

As the Vicomte, Jim Weitzer has a pretty-boy pout and picturesque chest worthy of a beach party movie. (It is easy to see why he's a major distraction to the Phantom's romantic plans.) Adding a touch of Gilbert and Sullivan whimsy, as a prima donna with an overdeveloped ego, is Julia Schmidt.

Is Phantom worthwhile? Not in the sophisticated ways of Sondheim, yet -- like the Eiffel Tower, it is an artificial spectacle to be marveled at regularly.

Keith A. Joseph can be reached at [email protected].

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