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Gambit Weekly Saenger Spectacle

By Dalt Wonk

JANUARY 12, 1998:  We seem to live in the age of the blockbuster. Once-staid museums now routinely issue press releases about vast hordes lining up for a glimpse of some cultural treasure -- and about windfall profits and regional economic impact. What exactly are the dynamics of this phenomenon? Has there been a sudden explosion of interest in our cultural heritage? Is it all hype -- new forms of marketing that have hit a popular nerve? Partly, no doubt. But as they say when talking about the limits of marketing, "remember the Edsel." Hype alone will not do the trick.

This question of what goes into the making of a mega-hit is unavoidable when confronted by the mother of all mega-hits -- Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera -- now settled in for what the press kit hails as "its triumphant return engagement" at the Saenger Theatre.

The aforementioned press kit -- a slick, hefty and encyclopedic tome -- works on the mind of the humble (and often impecunious) journalist in the way Versailles was meant to work on the mind of those not of the "blood royal": it astonishes by the immensity of its own wealth and glory.

This is, after all, a stage play that has grossed more than $1.5 billion (that's not a typo, the word is "billion"), topping Jurassic Park, which was one of the most successful films ever made. Nine years after its 1986 London premiere, Phantom had chalked up more than 30,000 performances around the world.

While we are on statistics, here are a few more tidbits to awe and amaze: number of 48-foot semi trucks required to move the show -- 20; costumes -- 230; beads in the chandelier -- 35,000; motors and winches -- 75; dry ice used per year (in tons) -- 114.4; yards of fabric in drapes -- 2,700.

I can't help thinking of the character "Chorus" in Shakespeare's Henry V, standing alone in the Globe Theater, asking the audience to use their imaginations to fill out "this unworthy scaffold ... this wooden o" -- the empty stage on which the play would unfold.

Lloyd Webber and company have taken the exact opposite approach. Their promise is that no imagination will be required. The audience will be swept up in a seamless miracle of stagecraft, a total illusion. Phantom sets out to incarnate in three dimensions the magic one has come to expect in films. It is a phenomenal challenge. And to a remarkable degree, Phantom reaches its goal.

The first act in particular is visually stunning. It begins with the evocative decadence of the opening auction scene, followed by the comic rehearsal of the grand opera Hannibal, which segues into a performance rendered from shifting points of view. Finally, the Phantom appears and abducts Christine, after which the two descend to the subterranean lake, with its illogical but haunting flora of candles under a cloud of fog. This sequence is astounding, and it's evocative of that turn-of-the-century delight in illusion that produced such wonders as Paris' Musée Gravin, full of wax works and phantasmagoria.

Ultimately, the stage production, like the book, is best seen as a series of highly effective and original oneiric images. Moreover, the story that links these visions -- also like the book -- has considerably less voltage than the visions themselves. By the second act, this fundamental lack of substance begins to show.

The score, which comes off as show tunes with cultural ambitions, is best when not straining to carry operatic emotions. In fact, the parody of grand opera -- though amusing in itself -- underlines the very limitations of Lloyd Webber's own idiom.

But the "triumphant return engagement" does indeed live up to its billing. The set is sumptuous and detailed. The intricate effects are flawlessly executed. And the cast members sing well and perform with brio.

If you've never seen Phantom and want to know what it's like, or if you're a dyed-in-the-wool Phan-atic, you're not likely to be disappointed by the current incarnation.

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