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New York Daily News
27.01.1988 .

Phantom of the Opera is fun and visually impressive

by Howard Kissel

By Andrew Lloyd Webber, Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe. With Michael Crawford, Sarah Brightman, Steve Barton and others. Sets and costumes by Maria Bjornson. Directed by Harold Prince.
At the Majestic.

Michael Crawford as the Phantom and Sarah Brightman as Christine
in a scene from the play "The Phantom of the Opera". (Clive Barda)

Contrary to what you might imagine, "Phantom of the Opera" is more than just a show about a chandelier.

Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical version of the fable about the masked man who haunts the Paris Opera is a longing look back at the stagecraft, the sense of wonder, theater had a century ago.

It is a spectacular entertainment, visually the most impressive of the British musicals. Perhaps the most old-fashioned thing about it is it's a love story, something Broadway has not seen for quite a while.

To say the score is Lloyd Webber's best is not saying a great deal. His music always has a synthetic, borrowed quality to it. As you listen you find yourself wondering where you've heard it before. In this case you've heard a lot of it in Puccini, in the work of other Broadway composers and even the Beatles.

Nevertheless he seems to be borrowing from better sources, and he has much greater sophistication about putting it all together. There are some droll opera parodies, several beautiful songs, an impressive septet and a grand choral number, all richly orchestrated.

His lack of originality is apparent in the music he writes for the Phantom's opera, which is merely harsh, not interesting. There is also a sequence with a heavy rock bass so cheap it might have been composed for "Starlight Express." Nevertheless, the score has an undeniable romantic surge. And after all, when was the last time you heard an unabashed love duet on Broadway? That accounts for much of the "Phantom's" appeal.

Much of its success is due to Michael Crawford's powerful performance as the Phantom. Crawford is strong both at underplaying the Phantom's villainy and at getting the maximum out of his final anguish. Steve Barton, as his rival, is an equally forceful singer and stage presence.

In the role of Christine, Sarah Brightman is fine. She has a cultivated soprano voice, a bit coy-sounding at times. Clearly her husband has written the music to demonstrate her range. The sound, however, is not warm, and her work seems very calculated. As an actress, she's not special. (Oddly, her eyes are so heavily made up they recall Lon Chaney in the title role.) Was she indispensable? Hardly.

Judy Kaye is funny and vocally impressive as a rival singer, and Leila Martin is strong as the Phantom's ally. David Romano is delightful as a comic tenor. There are no weak links in the cast.

Opening night of "Phantom of the Opera" at curtain call Steve Barton, Harold
Prince, Michael Crawford, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Sarah Brightman. (Richard Corkery)

What sets "Phantom" apart is the extraordinary imaginative work of Maria Bjornson, whose sets and costumes are a breathtaking, witty, sensual tribute to 19th century theater. Her constantly unfolding magic is hauntingly lit by Andrew Bridge.

The characters are not fleshed out, the lyrics are forgettable and the melodramatic plot is not as evocative as it might be. (Crawford's grief in the last scene is almost too deep for the material.) Nevertheless, that master conjurer Hal Prince has woven these seemingly outmoded materials into a grand evening of theater.

As for the chandelier, I should probably bemoan the attention focused on a "special effect." But I can't be upset to hear people gasp as it sways above them or give faint cries of delight as it swoops over them.

No one is really scared, especially since they've been reading about it for the last year and a half. As someone who knows theater must please more than just the mind, the sheer fun of the chandelier and "Phantom" seems a happy sign for Broadway.

* * *

Phantom of the Opera attracts celebrities

by David Hinckley

There wasn't much of a buzz about "Phantom of the Opera" on the No. 7 train heading to Times Square last night, which means the show had already achieved half its goal before the opening night chandelier ever rose.

What passed through the Majestic Theater portals last night was not the "Missing in Action" crowd, is what we're perceptively observing here. It was, as planned, a fur-coat, darling. The several hundred civilian onlookers who braved the 44th St. wind tunnel hoping for a glimpse of Warren Beatty or Molly Ringwald probably saw more endangered species in 15 minutes than they would have seen on a two-year safari in Kenya.

Carrie Fisher is one of a host of celebs at the opening at the Majestic Theater. (Richard Corkery)

Okay, that's a cheap shot. But hey, this production, which is in every sense the Broadway equivalent of a 55-gallon drum of caviar, can withstand one or two things that are cheap.

If any expense has been spared in the production, it doesn't show the sets, lighting and other trappings are every bit as spectacular as promised.

The trouble is that there, as with "Cats," it's all wrapped around Andrew Lloyd Webber's music, which, for those who have never opened that old "Jesus Christ Superstar" record, may be one of the few things less interesting than a Super Bowl. Unlike the Super Bowl, you can't even bet on it, unless you count that $17 million in advance ticket sales.

But no matter. This show is what MTV would be if it had the national defense budget to work witha whirlwind of lights, smoke and mysterious moments choreographed and scored to suggest profundity.

And why not? The fur coat folks didn't see the Jackson's 1984 Victory Tour, with its similar opening vignette of lights and fury. They don't see the smoke that every rock 'n' roll band uses because it enhances the lighting. So this is their extravaganza, their festival of lights and smoke.

Beverly Sills with husband Peter Greenough. (Richard Corkery)

"Phantom of the Opera" is about good and evil, and the attraction that often forms between the two. The same might be said of substance and illusion of substance which is what Broadway often is also about.

At what point does illusion become substance?

That's the right question to ask about "Phantom." Or, for that matter, about "Missing in Action."