Cultural Omnibus

Eat your heart out, Lon Chaney. There's a new `Phantom of the Opera' in London's theater district. And it's sure to put your famous 1925 film performance in the shadows. IF you visit London this month, there are three things you must do: Get a ticket to Andrew Lloyd Webber's newest musical sensation, ``The Phantom of the Opera.''

Forget Lon Chaney's Phantom -- that mute silver wraith that swings through the curtains and clings to the spot lights in the 1925 silent film.

And be ready to gasp.

For showmanship is alive, well, and playing to sold-out audiences at Her Majesty's Theatre.

With the help of writer Richard Stilgoe and lyricist Charles Hart, Mr. Webber has turned ``The Phantom'' into a musical thriller. Drawing on the original Phantom text, a novel published in 1911 by French author Gaston Leroux, the three men have uncovered a tightly woven literary fabric. The plot is part mystery, part romance, and part tragedy. The story includes lurid murders, breakneck chases, a host of love scenes, and a cathartic climax. But Leroux, not content with this bold blend of genres, went on to fuse at least four myths into the twisted musical genius he called the Phantom. Here we have Faust, Pygmalion, the beast of Beauty and the Beast, and Everyman all rolled into one tormented soul.

Yet despite this complexity, the story is easy to retell. It revolves around Erik, a physically deformed but mentally gifted composer who lives in the catacombs of the Paris Opera. Erik falls hopelessly in love with a young soprano, Christine, teaches her to sing like an angel, then whisks her away to his underworld lair when Raoul, an aristocratic rival, threatens to steal her heart.

The show gets off to a sluggish start. Instead of an overture, we get a somber scene in which an elderly Raoul buys up mementos of his past at an auction. Then the time shifts back to Raoul's salad days, and the audience is gradually drawn into the backstage life of the Paris Opera company. Here we see a full dress rehearsal of ``Hannibal,'' which (complete with a life-size elephant on wheels) looks and sounds as if it was directed by the Marx Brothers. We see management's bickering over poor box-office proceeds. And we see Christine as a young chorus girl getting her first break when the troupe's bumptious lead soprano loses her voice.

After Christine's successful debut, the Phantom appears for the first time -- through a trick mirror in Christine's dressing room. With his appearance in top hat, black cape, and mask, the show clicks into place. Then it blasts off in a whirl of magic and music that grabs the audience by the collar and shakes it.

Accompanied by organ music played to a rock beat, the Phantom and Christine disappear in a flash of smoke through a trapdoor, then reappear a fraction of a second later high above the stage on a moving bridge that tilts from end to end as they race down it. As they descend toward the catacombs, scores of candles rise from the stage floor. The Phantom's furious pace exhausts Christine, forcing him to ferry her the rest of the way to his lair in a boat that makes him look like the boatman on the river Styx and her look like the Pre-Raphaelite Lady of Shallot.

The staging offers a kaleidoscope of perspectives. Through a series of visual sleights of hand, we are taken behind the curtain, to Apollo's cloud above the proscenium, and below the stage to an underworld that reminds one of the burning lake of Hell in Milton's Paradise Lost.

Very few words are simply spoken in this production. Like Webber's last major production, ``Chess,'' this is no mere musical. But it's not opera, either -- at least not in the conventional sense. There are no trained vibratos or Italian lyrics here, escept those that Webber pokes fun at in plays within the play. The musical styles range from disco rhythms to broadway melodies, from mock Mozartian trills to Benjamin Brittan-like whole-tone scales. The show tunes -- mostly love songs sung by the three leading characters -- are sumptuous and haunting. You'll wake the next morning with their sound ringing in your head.

But the music and even the clever staging are upstaged in the end by the hypnotic power that the Phantom exerts. Like Christine, the audience comes to both fear and pity this creature and his ``music of the night.'' Michael Crawford's portrayal of the Phantom maintains a fierce energy throughout the show, and at its best reaches the heights of tragedy in moments that pierce and purge the audience's emotions. His rich baritone voice exudes confidence and strength in some scenes, then cracks into the cry of a trapped animal in others. And Sarah Brightman, as Christine, uses her vocal powers to make the audience feel the horror and the thrill evoked in her by the Phantom's obsessive attentions.

Two final notes: First, do not be concerned if you cannot see the stage clearly when the first act opens. The initial segment of the musical is played out on a thin sliver at the front edge of the stage. This is difficult to see from seats in the Upper Circle, but the rest of the play takes place much farther back on the stage and can be seen with ease.

And stay in your seat after the curtain call. That's when the orchestra plays the overture! Christopher Andreae is on assignment in the United States this month.

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