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That Darned Ghost 

The spooky masked baritone croons again.

Do you know the identity of that mysterious man who hit town last week? The one with the immovable face, who lives in an undisclosed location where he plots and schemes? No, not Dick Cheney. That other antisocial paranoid who's visiting again, the main man of The Phantom of the Opera.

While it's tempting to poke fun at this Broadway warhorse and its glitzy pretension, this touring production at Playhouse Square's Allen Theatre displays none of the tired disinterest or mechanical line readings that can plague casts in such oh-so-familiar shows. Sure, there are few surprises left, since most people have either seen or heard about the crashing "crystal" chandelier -- which, defying all laws of physics, always swoops to the floor in a slow-motion arc, landing softly like a giant bag of marshmallows in drag. But there are many stage images in this show that still have the power to enthrall, including the Phantom's watery, candlelit lair and his terrifying appearance riding a proscenium gee-gaw high above the audience.

The story's the same: A Paris opera house is haunted by a tuneful ghost who demands his own box (unoccupied, apparently) at every performance and a generous monthly stipend to boot. He falls for Christine, the lovely understudy who vaults to stardom thanks to the Phantom's ethereal leverage and a flood of notes he keeps sending to the opera's hapless managers (played amusingly by David Cryer and D.C. Anderson). Meanwhile the company's nominal stars, Carlotta Giudicelli and Ubaldo Piangi, huff and puff their way through performances that are vexed by unseen voices and the occasional dead man hanging.

Scary stuff aside, every Phantom must rely on strong performances in key roles to carry the day. Fortunately Gary Mauer and Rebecca Pitcher musically anchor this rendition as the Phantom and haunted Christine. Harnessing the dark side with admirable flair, Mauer sends shivers as he sings the familiar "The Music of the Night" and kicks up some emotion in his duets as Christine's "angel of music." For her part, Pitcher uses her lyric coloratura pipes to full effect, although she never seems to fully explore her conflicted feeling for the Phantom and her boy toy Raoul (played with shrink-wrapped, male-model blandness by Tim Martin Gleason).

A number of the smaller roles add spice, particularly Kim Stengel as the hefty and demanding diva Carlotta, and John Whitney as the egotistical tenor Piangi. This twosome makes the opera-within-an-opera great fun, as their Aïda is beset by several demons set loose by our favorite masked man.

Some may view the entire Phantom score by Andrew Lloyd Webber as insufferable kitsch at this point, but for those who love these quasi-operatic show tunes, this production stands more than a ghost of a chance of pleasing.

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