Is the Phantom of the Opera a ghost with supernatural powers, or is he just your typical freaky, deformed cellar-dweller who skulks around the opera house playing scary, steampunky tricks to manipulate the management into doing his bidding? That's just one of the details I shouldn't reveal to anyone who's never seen the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical spectacular. And I assume there still are such people, because I was one of them until the other night, dutifully staying away from something that I assumed had little to offer real, genuine, snotty theatergoers like me.
So I have nothing to compare this current tour to: no Michael Crawford or Sarah Brightman, no London, no Broadway. It's still produced by Cameron Mackintosh, features the late Maria Björnson's marvelous original designs for the set and costumes, and is directed by Hal Prince.
If the Phantom and his muse, Christine, had had access to some sort of instant messaging client, the first act would go pretty much like this:
phanboy: I TAUGHT U 2 SNG U UNGR8FL SLT
chrissyd: BT I WNT 2 MRRY A NRML MN INSTED OF SPNDNG MY LF IN A SOGGY BSMNT W/ A CIRCUS FRK
phanboy: PHANTOM SMASH!
Fortunately for us, it's more complicated, and we get to watch. With its backstage intrigues, onstage flash, and the dysfunctional, lonely antihero's attempts to get the girl (who just needs a little help to be the biggest star ever), you can see why this show appeals to everyone from musical theater queens to untalented girls to tortured geeks who really do live in someone's basement writing operas that may never see the light of day.
It's fun to watch. It's rather beautifully staged. One thing that I'm pretty sure is not a secret is that a big glass chandelier comes crashing down to the stage during the show, kind of sailing past the heads of some lucky ticketholders and freaking all the characters the hell out. Maybe this effect used to be better. It presently sucks. It looks like a jellyfish in an IMAX film gently swimming down to the floor, and when it hits and shatters, it makes no discernible sound. No crashy crashy? I'm both baffled and disappointed.
But I wasn't disappointed by things I'd dreaded. The script is largely plotless; the few heavy-handed attempts at ascribing backstory or motivation make little sense, but then again, they are rushed through, leaving us to wallow in gallons of romance, creepiness, and spectacle. I loved the cheesy old fake operas-within-the-play. I loved the gaudy rococo designs that I felt I could nearly taste and smell, they were so fancy and heavy.
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Trista Moldovan does a beautiful job, vocally, physically, and emotionally, portraying the heroine Christine, an orphaned chorus girl who's secretly tutored by a mysterious disembodied voice to become the leading diva of the Opéra Populaire. Her love/hate/fear relationship with the Phantom, whom she originally perceives as an "angel of music" sent by her deceased father, requires great range to enact believably, and Moldovan also gives Christine a spine and a sense of fun, joy, and adventure.
Tim Martin Gleason's Phantom was very strong as an actor -- especially considering that he spends nearly the entire show with his face covered by the trademark white mask -- but, I thought, merely adequate as a singer. Then again, his character is not an opera singer.
I also appreciated the wide range of talents of the supporting cast, who had to, as in the spectaculars of a century ago, sing opera, dance ballet, act at least a little, and change costumes a lot. The orchestra was splendid, too (occasionally drowning out lyrics, but that's contemporary musicals for you -- at one point, the words "You have brought me to that moment where words run dry" sounded for all the world like "You have brought me to the toilet." I laughed only briefly, and it was my only inappropriate laugh of the evening).
The Phantom of the Opera continues through Sunday, November 22, at Gammage Auditorium, 1200 South Forest Avenue in Tempe. Tickets range from $21.25 to $80.00; order here or call 480-965-3434. As the Gammage Web site states, the main parking lot usually fills up an hour before curtain -- so at least one member of your party who's old enough to drive should wear comfortable shoes.