Phantom Menace

Andrew Lloyd Webber's longest-running hit is riddled with despoiled emulations and cheap mockeries of classic opera

by Kate Wingfield
Published on June 28, 2007, 12:00am | Comments

Phantom of the Opera is today what it has always been: part circus, part carnival-ride, part made-for-TV movie. It is a sumptuous feast for the shallowest of senses, an assault on subtlety; a garish piece of pretend art for the masses. And it would have lived the past 20 years as a harmless piece of disposable fluff but for one inexcusable reality. The entire product is riddled with despoiled emulations and cheap mockeries of classic opera.

In a hideous act of reverse alchemy, Andrew Lloyd Webber and company have yanked from the operatic tradition snatches of eye and ear-catching gold and re-invented them into banal, cartoonish overkill. Thus, what takes an hour to develop dramatically in a real opera, Webber vomits onto the stage within minutes. Costumes that would have been gradually and subtly unveiled for historical or symbolic impact in a classic turn up here in such excess they threaten to out-glare the pyrotechnics.


Phantom of Opera

So, what's the big deal? Can't musical theater parody opera? Can't one genre steal from another? Isn't that all part of the Phantom phun? The answer is an emphatic ''No!'' Not like this, not under Webber's hand.

And here's why: With so few people actually seeing real opera and so many others too mystified by it to bother, Webber's saturated dumb-down is a crime that keeps on stealing. Opera houses in the U.S. and Britain are struggling to attract audiences that have consumed nothing but Phantom-like parodies since childhood and they cannot compete. People balk at the real thing because it cannot (and by its very nature must never) offer doses of instant, over-loaded gratification. It's like asking people raised on Fruit Loops to try steel-cut oats. Webber has spoiled them for anything better.

Still, beneath the travesties of Phantom there supposedly lies a piece of musical theater. Can it be appreciated for its own sake? Barely. Certainly there are one or two catchy moments here (as evidenced by much audience sing-along), but this is no Jesus Christ Superstar. For all his escalating sins, Webber has been capable of writing a pleasing, even meaningful tune. In shows such as Superstar and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, he brought us solidly structured, emotionally cathartic, even soulful, musical stories. But unless you are carried away by the gruel-thin Hallmark-style romance of the unrequited Phantom, there are no such memorable moments here musically, dramatically or otherwise.

And yes, Webber has heard Puccini, but his occasional attempts to imitate genius evaporate instantly under his own over-cooked and lumbering attempts to create ''haunting'' melodies. He cannot ignite the heart here because he underestimates his audiences' capacity for musical complexity. In a word, the songs are boring.

And then there's the pace -- building a mood requires, if nothing else, a few quiet moments. Phantom runs like an over-wound clock: Heartfelt moment is interrupted by action which is interrupted by heartfelt moment which is interrupted by comedy which is interrupted by action and so on. There are no actual spaces for the ''music of the night.'' This is No Attention Span Left Behind entertainment and the fact that the music doesn't cut it is practically irrelevant.

PHANTOM OF THE OPERA
star
Kennedy Center Opera House
To Aug. 12
$37-$95
202-467-4600
www.kennedy-center.org

As for the players, though they are somewhat hard to find behind all the bursting flares, distorting microphones and guy-wires, they are a stalwart, professional bunch. Veteran Phantom John Cuda gives a creepily austere but honest performance. He has a quite true voice and his tone brings as much lyricism as is possible to the bland music.

Marni Raab as Christine is, however, a disappointment. Though she has a couple of passably nice high notes she falters much elsewhere. Still, as a presence she is as delicate and waif-like as an old-fashioned puppet and it lends an appropriate charm.

Greg Mills is a fun and energetic Raoul and he is a pleasing tenor for the genre. Kim Stengel as Carlotta, the opera house diva, provides just enough voice and attitude to suggest a picture postcard of the real thing.

And so this relic continues to orbit the Earth damning further multitudes to musical mediocrity. Go if you must. You will be joined by a rapt and adoring audience of true believers who will have reaffirmed their convictions that there is no greater fulfillment than an Andrew Lloyd Webber product. Anyone else, such as someone familiar with opera, should expect to crave a shower immediately after the show.