Cast-album import reveals `Phantom's' pleasing score

``The Phantom of the Opera'' promises to break all box office records on Broadway, as it has done in London already. The show, scheduled to open Jan. 26 at the Majestic, is already sold out into January 1989. Andrew Lloyd Webber, the composer, is possibly the hottest commodity on the musical-theater scene, for such hits as ``Jesus Christ Superstar,'' ``Evita,'' ``Cats,'' and ``Starlight Express.'' Those scores were wildly inconsistent, so the obvious question is: How good is this one?

It's a pleasure to report that the two-CD set of ``Phantom'' (Polydor 831 273-2 Y-2) is immensely entertaining. Mr. Webber has clearly fallen in love with the world of operetta, '40s musicals, and movie sound tracks. Here these interests have coalesced into a glamorous, tuneful, romantic score that is just right for this slightly Gothic tale. He uses an orchestra of real and synthesized instruments in a clever combination and gives his singers some gorgeous melodies that require expertly trained voices.

Unfortunately, such voices aren't heard on this London cast recording. They are all overextended; the sopranos in particular strain and stretch for notes that are not really theirs to command. In Michael Crawford (the Phantom), we have an actor whose singing voice is weak and grainy and whose speaking voice, even as amplified, is less than terrifying.

Sarah Brightman, the secondary lead and composer's wife, sings well, but her light, girlish soprano suggests nothing of the full-blooded heroine the story line describes. Still, she has all the needed high notes, and Webber gives her a generous quantity to be held for as long as possible. The supporting singers are all essentially inadequate.

Of the music itself, I am particularly partial to the grand and catchy ``Prima Donna'' number. It is vintage musical/opera, with a genuine tune that puts ``Don't Cry for Me, Argentina'' and ``Memories'' to shame.

Polydor includes no libretto and provides no banding on the CDs, so to access your favorite song, you have to play around with the search button. This is also an analog recording whose overdubbing and splicing are sloppy. The general feeling is of a rush job to get this potential moneymaker out to the buyers. Just a bit more care could have won so many more friends to the set.

Here's hoping that, when the American production is recorded, not only will more care be taken in the studio, but the cast will consist of better singers. And why shouldn't it? After all, composers of musicals have been writing for rock voices for so long now that legitimate musical singers have been banished to opera. Perhaps, if ``Phantom'' begins a trend, beautiful singing will once again find a place on the musical stage.

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