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Nashville Scene Lesser Evil

Phantom a spectacle, even if lame

By Maureen Needham

MARCH 9, 1998:  I finally got to see the chandelier. There it was, right onstage in full view at the very beginning of Andrew Lloyd Webber's super-mega-blockbuster musical, Phantom of the Opera. In fact, it was out there even before the curtain rang up or the organ commenced its eerie overture. A huge cloth draped over this enormous, shapeless form did not disguise what was inside, because the set designer had coyly printed in one-foot-high letters the word "CHANDELIER" on the front, just in case you might miss it. So directed, I kept my eyes glued on the mystery package; sure enough, at the end of the prologue, the box flew open and the golden chandelier flew to the top of the auditorium ceiling. Very impressive.

But that wasn't all. At the end of Act One, just like clockwork, it flew down again. For a moment, though, I was a bit anxious about the little kids who were seated front row center. Thank heavens, the huge thing took an elliptical path away from the audience members sitting directly below in the $60 seats. It crashed onto the stage instead. Very impressive.

To be honest, by that point, I'd seen enough and was ready to go home. The only problem was, there was a whole other act to sit through.

No chandelier to occupy me, I noted with fascination a number of other magic tricks: There was a huge, gilded dressing-room mirror through which the Phantom (consummately played by Brad Little) abducted Christine as he escaped to the underworld. There were fireworks, explosions, and dry-ice vapor by the ton. There were 20 set changes performed in the blinking of an eye, fabulous costumes transformed in a matter of seconds, grotesque hang ing bodies that dropped without warning out of the wings. There were taunting voices that shifted around the auditorium, painted flats that unrolled in a flash, giant sets that collapsed on top of the soprano, ghostly gondolas that traversed the underground sewers of Paris as monstrous candelabras rose out of the mist at the master's bidding. These, too, were impressive.

The melodramatic special effects were effectively compounded by sound effects as much as by the musical compositions. Most of the grisly murders were accompanied by the high shrieks of the ballet dancers, who were dressed like Degas' little bronze opera girl. They scurried in a frightened flock, this way or that, attempting to escape the evil clutches of the Phantom.

Big time
Phantom of the Opera has people flocking to TPAC-it's great spectacle, even if it's mediocre drama.

A simplistic musical motif on the organ accompanied all threatening events, and it wasn't long before a Pavlovian conditioned response took over in me: I could predict upon hearing the organ swell that the Phantom was up to his no-good tricks. It was a little like watching the movie Jaws-remember how the music gave you just enough time to shut your eyes before the mechanical monster flashed onscreen?

There was the lush theme song, "Music of the Night," quite seductive in its sweeping accompaniment, as well as the dramatic "Point of No Return," in which Christine (played by Amy Jo Arrington) sang full out, her amplified voice soaring over the organ and the full orchestra.

Curiously enough, the only thing that wasn't larger than life in this contemporary version of "Beauty and the Beast" was the Phantom himself. The Dark Angel of Death, as he was called, seemed bland rather than evil. Yes, this is supposed to be a musical and not a sermon, but the banality of this central character robbed the play of any dramatic or thematic value. Consider other hit musicals, which actually have a point, and thus some theatrical integrity: the rather unsettling Jekyll and Hyde, for instance, in which the leading character wrestles with the moral deterioration that consumes his will. Or, how about Chicago, in which assorted murderesses brazenly come to terms with their guilt in the song "He Had It Coming"?

Instead, Webber and co-author Richard Stilgoe tip the scale with superficial plot devices that just happen to occur at predictable 15-minute intervals. It's significant that they never allow us to watch the villain while he commits these dastardly deeds. That way, the authors downplay the gravity of the leading character's actions and offer facial disfigurement as an excuse for his atrocities-for example, they show us a 10-second flash of one of his victims swinging in the air, followed by a 15-minute scene in which the poor fellow sings about what a lonely life he leads. Could you imagine a musical about Jack the Ripper getting away with this kind of imbalance?

Is it indicative of current ambiguous social attitudes toward crime and punishment that the Phantom is allowed to wriggle free on the grounds that he is the victim? Ask the governor of Texas whether he would waste much time in signing the executioner's orders for a serial killer who brutally strangled dozens of victims. Consider further that our Phantom kidnapped, pillaged, demanded huge extortion payments, terrorized hundreds of people into submission, and threatened young women with rape and death if they did not act in concert with his psychotic obsessions.

In other words, this character exemplifies just about every social evil that our modern, violent society faces on a daily basis. "String 'em up!" Judge Penny White's detractors might cry in unison. I wonder, are some of these the same people who pay inordinate amounts of money to come see this elaborate musical? Do they shed tears for the Phantom's fate and rejoice in his escape?

Even so, there's no doubt about it: Phantom of the Opera is a splendid production. Very impressive. Spectacle makes up for a multitude of sins, it would seem. If I sound a little cynical about the whole thing, perhaps it's because I get the feeling that I've been manipulated.

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