Masker Piece Theatre

Brad Little and Rebecca Pitcher in The Phantom of the Opera.

Angie Tidwell is a total loser. She's 37 and lives with her mom. Her favorite singer is Helen Reddy. She collects vintage dollhouse furniture, works as a guest greeter at Wal-Mart, and is still a virgin. But what makes Angie a total washout is that she's only seen The Phantom of the Opera 83 times.

I know these things about Angie because Gina Kersh told me. Gina, whose favorite singer is Barry Manilow, has seen Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera 317 times -- "and counting," she's quick to remind everyone she meets.

"Some of us are just more devoted to Erik than others," Gina tells me during intermission at a recent matinee of Phantom, which has arrived for another stint at Grady Gammage Auditorium in Tempe. Erik is the Phantom's first name and, although it's never spoken aloud in the Lloyd Webber version, real Phantom fans like Gina (and even faux fans like Angie) know this. They know all about Erik and his windup music box and his love for Christine, because they've devoted their lives to Phantom and all that it stands for.

And Phantom, apparently, stands for a lot. To tens of thousands of phans (which is what they like to be called), Phantom is about the redemptive power of love; it's about learning not to care what other people look like. And, for the folks who flock to see the musical version again and again, it's about all they do with their lives.

"Phantom IS life," Gina tells me between acts, while she scribbles notes to herself about Brad Little, who's playing the Phantom in this production. ("He's not my favorite Erik," she confides. "But I flew all the way out here [from Cleveland] to see him, so I've got to get some memories down for later.") She explains that Lloyd Webber's most famous musical is like a beacon to "special" people, who can hear the real meaning in Charles Hart's lyrics, and understand that the secret message there is about "holding on, because true love does exist and nothing else matters."

Sometimes, Phantom's beacon sends out messages to sad cases like Angie, who joins Gina and me just as Gina is showing off her collection of Phantom ticket stubs from around the world. Angie explains that she drove here from her home in Tarzana, California, to see Brad Little as Erik, and that by sleeping in her rental car she can afford three additional performances before it's time to return home. Gina isn't impressed; Cleveland is much farther from Phoenix than Tarzana, and she once fired a CPA because he suggested that she should spend a little less on theater tickets or at least go see a different show. Angie goes her one better: She recently picketed a playhouse in Quebec because its management sold only extra-large Phantom tee shirts. "I'm here to tell you," Angie says, smiling at Gina, "not every Phantom phan is 30 pounds overweight."

Gina glares at Angie, who's on her way back to her seat. "She has the Phantom's mask tattooed on her left breast," she says. That is sort of extreme, I'm about to say, when Gina tells me that she has the entire logo on her right hip. Angie is such a loser.

When they're not bickering in theater lobbies, Phantom phans congregate on the Internet, on literally hundreds of Web sites devoted to every aspect of Lloyd Webber's musical, from the meaning of the lyrics to the significance of the chandelier (one astonishing 12-page document by PhanGary postulates that "the chandelier represents the joy and illumination the Phantom brings to everything he touches," a generous assessment of a murderous hack who lives in a dungeon and terrorizes an opera house).

On one site, Michelle Osborne, the Phan of the Month, explains her attraction to the show: "There is a part of me that identifies with the Phantom. As a child I had no real friends. I was different than others. I understand what it is like to be an outcast. I would rather spend time with my clarinet than other human beings. . . ."

Some phans have wider agendas. On Fans vs. the RUG, a site devoted to trashing Andrew Lloyd Webber's production company (the Really Useful Group, known to Phantomites as "the RUG"), visitors vent their spleens about the bum treatment they're getting: "For too long now, the RUG have treated us as second-class citizens," the site's title page reads. "They don't answer our letters. They don't respond to our constructive suggestions. They don't let us get tickets to anniversaries. They obstruct fan endeavors and are unhelpful and rude."

Most fans are more upbeat about their Phantom. Michelle doesn't just love the musical; she loves the Phantom himself. "It's the cloak, the hat, the mask," she explains in her recent "Phan of the Month" interview. "And his sense of humor. . . . Every time I think that he had never been shown any love, never been touched in kindness, it makes me want to gather him into my arms and comfort him."

But Erik doesn't need comforting. He has a cane that shoots fire and a hundred flashpots and a henchwoman who does impersonations of Dame Judith Anderson. I figure that these magic touches are what draw people in and keep them coming back for more. But Gina says that people love Phantom because, as an entertainment, "it has a little of everything."

For my money, it doesn't have enough intermissions. I've sat through several productions of this monolithic money machine, and I can't find a single song that forwards the story, or a single performance that would succeed without the spectacle of its costuming or the special-effects wizardry that supports it. Phantom has moved beyond the point where anyone views it critically; even its creaky, levitating chandelier receives an ovation as it drags itself slowly into place over the audience at the end of the first act. This is what people come to Phantom for: to watch a giant lighting fixture move several feet along a length of rope. Ooooooh! Aaaaaaaah!

The Phantom souvenir kiosk in the lobby is always more entertaining than the show itself. There, one can buy a $25 Phantom tee shirt, a musical keychain, a pillbox, or a wristwatch that lights up every 30 seconds and plays a bit of music from the show. I ran into Gina there; she was buying a Phantom mug that changes color when you fill it with a warm drink. I wanted to hear more about Gina's life with Erik, but I blew it when I asked her if she thought more people had seen Phantom than had seen The Rocky Horror Show. She fled, but not before admonishing me for daring to mention the two shows in the same sentence.

I caught up with her later in the parking lot. "You just don't understand," she wailed, tears spilling onto her limited-edition Phantom World Anniversary tee shirt. "This isn't about what happens up on that stage. It's not about the music or the chandelier or even Erik. Don't you get it? This is about life."

I returned home, where I found this Internet message from Phantom phan Michelle: "I fully believe that if everyone in the world understood Phantom like the phans do, the petty wars and differences we fight over might begin to disappear." And I thought about Angie and Gina, carping over keychains and tattoos, and I was more confused than ever.

The Phantom of the Opera continues through Sunday, January 23, at Gammage Auditorium, Mill and Apache in Tempe.

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