The Phantom of the Opera is not just a musical. It is an industry. Written by the richest man in the theatre, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and produced by the second-richest man in the theatre, Cameron Mackintosh, Phantom has been marketed to Phoenix as the biggest thing ever to hit the Valley. Let's face it: America is obsessed with size. The first time I visited Germany (in the late Seventies), I was intrigued by the German compulsion to measure everything. By far the most common words were kleine and grosse. At that time, America was really hung up on "new." But that was before Reagan redefined American values. Now "new" is taken for granted, and we have moved on to an insatiable taste for the "big" or, better, the "biggest."

On this score, the Valley of the Sun can rest easy. The third road tour of The Phantom of the Opera, which just rolled into Gammage Auditorium, has stinted on nothing. Is it spectacular? Is the Grand Canyon "grand"? But is it any good?

It is fashionable in circles of the artistically elite to dismiss the musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber as popular pastiche, beneath the dignity of serious consideration. This is the same artistic elite that fell all over itself praising his Evita, before it became concerned that any attention to Andrew Lloyd Webber might distract from the critical establishment's vigorous campaign to canonize Stephen Sondheim.

Lloyd Webber burst on the musical scene in his teens with an innocent children's Bible story, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (revived last year in a spectacular tour that climaxed on Broadway with a dazzling display of flesh that revealed how far we've advanced from Cecil B. De Mille). This was followed by Jesus Christ Superstar (recently seen at Gammage in a dismal, third-rate "concert" version). His other big moneymakers have included Starlight Express (currently wowing the high rollers in Las Vegas), Cats (now and forever worldwide) and the upcoming Sunset Boulevard, heading for Broadway with Glenn Close (from the L.A. production, after dumping Patty LuPone, who had starred in London and been contracted for the Great White Way. LuPone was bought out, reportedly for a million-dollar settlement. What Lloyd Webber wants, he buys, and what he doesn't want, he buys out).

In between have been a couple of actual flops, like Song and Dance and the unwatchable Aspects of Love. But he has actually written something stirring and of stature only twice: Evita and The Phantom of the Opera.

What separates this operetta in quality from the typical Lloyd Webber tripe is the confluence of outstanding collaborators. First, it is an unabashed melodrama based on a 19th-century novel by Gaston Leroux. That it has survived at least seven film versions proves the power of the story to reach the imaginations of audiences throughout the decades. This musical adaptation is arguably the best version, because the melodramatic plot has found its most powerful expression in the soaring melodies of Lloyd Webber's richest, most mature score.

Second, the composer has had his work elevated and enriched by the best libretto and lyrics he has encountered in his profitable career. The book is by Lloyd Webber and Richard Stilgoe (who also helped out on Cats and Starlight Express), with lyrics by Charles Hart (whose lyrics for Aspects of Love were the strongest thing about that disaster).

The production designer, Maria Bjrnson, deserves a lot of credit for providing some beautiful clothes and some astounding scenic illusions, while making the costumes garish when appropriate and never less than eye-popping.

But the true star of Phantom is the director, Harold Prince. It is his work that dazzles the imagination and startles the senses, that catapults this musical into a theme-park ride. His choreography of enormous curtains, hiding, revealing, tantalizing, is poetry in motion. His eloquent evocation of ballet and opera is witty and devastating. The visual spectacle from the slow-motion movement of the auctioneers to the mystical emergence of the boat, gliding silently through a river of fog, navigated among flickering candelabras, is sheer magic. This is the kind of enchantment we go to the theatre to experience. It transports us beyond words, or even music, to a world of imagination, where we can feel the pain of the outsider and stuff ourselves on the confection of fantasy.

The appeal of Phantom is that same eternal pathos that fuels Cyrano de Bergerac, Beauty and the Beast and, more mundanely, that $200 million pacifier Forrest Gump. Apparently, we are suckers for the misunderstood misfit.

So, ultimately, the power of the story comes down to the acting, because it is through the actors that we can experience the exquisite pain of a love that transcends the physically (or mentally) grotesque. In this production of Phantom, we have a mixed success. The good news is that our young heroine, Christine, is played with unusual warmth and sincerity by Adrienne McEwan. While she lacks the astonishing coloratura brilliance of the original (the former Mrs. Lloyd Webber, Sarah Brightman), she is a far superior actress, and more attractive to watch.

Equally impressive is Rebecca Judd in the important role of Madame Giry, the ballet mistress, who carries a good deal of the show, both vocally and with her weighty dramatic presence. This is especially vital, since so much of the plot is entrusted to her delivery. With a chin like the rock of Gibraltar, Judd creates a grounded center for the entire maelstrom to eddy about.

Less persuasive is John Schroeder, whose Raoul looks like the handsome hunk that is required, and whose vocal gifts are perfectly adequate when they are not being overwhelmed by McEwan, but whose acting is of the earnest school.

But what is a Phantom without a Phantom? For the answer to that question, you just might have to shell out $62 and traipse over to Tempe to see how ineffectual Grant Norman is, but how little that affects your enjoyment of the show.

Lacking the graceful physical beauty of the original Phantom, Michael Crawford, and lacking the complex vocal characterization of the silver-throated Davis Gaines (Broadway's current Phantom), Norman manages to chew all 2.5 tons of scenery in compensation. His voice has the oddest nasal whine, with an overripe vibrato that could rattle the 1,000-pound chandelier. His acting is never simple when it can be baroque, with the result that any sympathy we might feel for this creature is eviscerated by his desperate clutching at our throats, demanding pity. We are repulsed by his lack of humanity, which distorts that entire meaning of the story, in which Christine is meant to come to love the beauty of his soul through the creativity of his music and his devotion to her talent.

Still, if you don't know that the last image of the mask is meant to break your heart, you will still find plenty to be thrilled by. That famous crashing chandelier, by the way, crashes more spectacularly here than in any previous incarnation in New York, London or Los Angeles. I guess they finally figured out how to do it right.


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