The Music of the Night, Reconstructed by Matthew Murray

    The Phantom Theatre, photo by Joan MarcusFor once, the show doesn't start or stop at the edge of the stage. Look behind you to witness gently cavorting spirits all but escaping from the paint with which they've been etched into the walls. Or better yet, cast your gaze upward and marvel at the domed ceiling, punctuated with bits of Second Empire opulence that suggest nothing less than a first-rate house of imagination, pre-crumble. Even the load-bearing drop cloths adorning the wall elicit a certain rococo appeal.

    The history is so rich in the house that David Rockwell built that you might not notice—if only at first, and then depending on where you're seated—the ruins of a chandelier lost among the dross. Yet there they are, floating through space with all the precarious uncertainty of fragments of a fond memory at their most untidily kept. To any theatregoer worth his or her salt, these alone would identify a trip to The Phantom of the Opera, even if you were somehow unaware that you were visiting the Venetian Resort-Hotel-Casino in Las Vegas and had only unwittingly stumbled into what is called there The Phantom Theatre.

    Rockwell's structure, designed specifically for the Vegas production, is indeed quite real. In fact, it seems the ultimate architectural vision for the now-ubiquitous work, the world-spanning Andrew Lloyd Webber-Charles Hart-Richard Stilgoe musical in its fullest and most corporeal form. But when the apparitions of ages past are swept away at the show's beginning, restoring the chandelier and the theater containing it to their former luster (leading the familiar Maria Bjornson set to melt into Rockwell's theater design), not every ghost is successfully exorcised. Lost in the ruins-cum-resplendence are the myriad details and felicities that have always identified Phantom as the finest work of the so-called "British invasion" of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

    Though the show has rarely been taken seriously as storytelling, and is generally seen as less powerful than punchline-worthy today, the writers and director Harold Prince (who has returned for this production), it's always been deeper, richer, and more surprising than Les Misérables, Miss Saigon, Cats, and the lesser pop-opera hits that were its contemporaries. The focus has always been, and rightfully so, on Webber's romance-rich melodies and the carefully overwrought tale they delineate of the beautiful young chorus girl Christine who ascends to divadom with the help of her mysterious (and unseen) voice teacher, and who falls in love with Paris Opera patron Raoul—to the ghost's eternal consternation.

    But in trimming Phantom from two and a half hours (with an intermission) to 95 minutes (without one), Prince has excised almost all of the connecting material that has always given the central romance what bite and suspense it had. Delightful supporting characters, particularly the opera's tempestuous lead soprano Carlotta and her tenor paramour Piangi, have been so whittled away that what has long felt like a three-character show now seems even more like one. The effects of the Phantom's reign of terror on the theater and its inhabitants, who also include the bumbling new managers and the stolid-but-knowing ballet mistress and her curiosity-driven daughter, are implied so vaguely someone unfamiliar with Phantom (is there such a person?), might not understand what all the fuss is about.

    Masquerade, photo by Joan MarcusNot every change is for the worse. Many will rejoice at the deletion of all references to the Punjab Lasso, a plot device so intractable in the original that the only way to understand its implications was to read the libretto line by line. (This also leads to a far better trap effect in the protracted-trio finale.) The shortening of a few songs and the clipping of some lines of dialogue get the show where it needs to be more quickly than before. Prince has even relaxed the pacing of one number, "Prima Donna," which in recent seasons in New York has felt more like an evening at NASCAR than an operatic-weight septet. But the overall effect is one of an energetic tour guide, who gets you to every must-see location but does so at the expense of the context-establishing nuance that gives traveling—like theatre—its most significant meaning.

    What's been removed has not been adequately compensated for by the rest of the production, which despite the new appellation "The Las Vegas Spectacular," still looks like the traditional Phantom at any given moment. The big exceptions are the chandelier, which now falls (and stops) at a terrifying speed and a new location in the story, and a new "entr'acte" in which fireworks, and the Paris Opera facade (designed by Paul Kelly, who adapted and added to the late Bjornson's designs) lead into the costumed revel (and unofficial theme statement) "Masquerade." This bits do ensure that you'll see something in Vegas you'll see nowhere else you can see Phantom, but add nothing to the story and, frankly, are somewhat less spectacular than hope and pre-publicity (the show opened at the Venetian about a year and a half ago) might lead you to believe.

    Ultimately, it all comes back to the people onstage, and the cast I saw was by and large an enormously satisfying one. (Many of the roles are double-cast, so you may not see exactly this combination.) Kristi Holden was a pert, well-sung, and thoughtful Christine, a woman struggling for liberation against the bonds of two men who want to trap her for different reasons; Jason Forbach, on as Raoul in place of the billed Ryan Silverman, tamped his youthful energy down with an adventurous sense of propriety that made his later scenes as an action hero somewhat more convincing than usual. John Leslie Wolfe and Lawson Skala were solid as the managers, and Elena Jeanne Batman struck me as an all-around excellent Carlotta who deserved the chance to explore the full arc of the character as originally written. (In Vegas, she all but vanishes halfway through the show.)

    Anthony Crivello, photo by Joan MarcusAs the Phantom, Anthony Crivello ranks among the best I've seen, and is certainly one of the scariest: He plays, more than anyone else, the frightened child trapped within the man's twisted body, and stalks about the stage as a tortured mass of impetuous anger leavened only by the hope that love isn't forever beyond his grasp. His falsetto renderings of his songs' more tender passages (especially in "The Music of the Night") are caressingly lovely, his booming threats startling with their intensity, and his final moments equally comical and pitiful, when so many actors lose them in the harried act of wrapping up the plot.

    Crivello, shorn of that responsibility by the revisions that reduce the story to a bullet-point-riddled PowerPoint presentation, succeeds because of his fearlessness to plumb the depths of what makes men men. More than ever before, you see his Phantom as the alpha male to Raoul's prim metrosexual, the natural force balancing out the miracle of modern engineering. It's a battle that he's not destined to win. And it turns out only slightly better for the Phantom presenting his gorgeous-looking but pared-down story to audiences traditionally more interested in the surface-over-substance issues the Phantom himself rails so violently against.

    (For tickets or more information about The Phantom of the Opera in Las Vegas, visit www.phantomlasvegas.com.)

    Tuesday, January 15, 2008 at 6:45 AM | Item Link

    The last five columns written by Matthew Murray:

    09/01/2008: By the Book

    06/27/2008: An Uncomfortable Visit to the Boundaries of Show Business

    05/29/2008: Revisiting Life on that Wicked—and Wonderful—Stage

    05/10/2008: Ticky Ticky Tock... Please Make it Stop!

    05/06/2008: Welcome Playbill Radio listeners!

    For a listing of all features written by Matthew, click here.