Phantom'-Proof

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Andrew Lloyd Webber's Classic Stills Dazzles at Kennedy Center

As it stands now, “The Phantom of the Opera,” is pretty much bulletproof and critic-proof—and the spectacularly timeless production currently at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House is no exception.

There is probably nothing you could do to this remounted million Andrew Lloyd Webber staple and extravaganza that would dim its appeal, dampen its luster, or hurt its box office numbers. The story—a bitter deformed opera genius takes the love of his life under his wing and ruthlessly fights to keep from losing her—is simply a juggernaut that keeps on rolling. And besides that, it has way too much time, legend and lore attached to it to ever fade away.

“The Phantom of the Opera” started out as a novel by Frenchman Gaston Leroux long, long ago in a Paris even further ago, becoming a stunning silent film in which Lon Chaney displayed all the acting excellence that could be attained in the form. It later became a less distinguished film with Claude Rains as the Phantom, and no doubt was remade as a Vincent Price film somewhere along the way.

Then came Andrew Lloyd Webber (Sir Andy now), the British rock-opera impresario of “Evita” and “Cats” fame. He got the brilliant idea of making an opera out of a creaky old romantic gothic horror story that itself was set in the world of 19th-century opera. It was a terrific vehicle for the young Sarah Brightman (whom Webber married and divorced) as the ingénue Christine, and Michael Crawford as the disfigured Phantom.

The result became a mega-hit that is still running on Broadway two decades later. It not only has a lush, deeply soaring romantic score, it also boasts a spectacular set, with a chandelier that crashes onto the stage as well as the Phantom prowling all over the theater. Did we mention it had a lush, super-romantic score?

Many couples—of all varieties, ages and so forth—have seen it many, many times. “Phantom” is the great white whale version of the Hollywood blockbuster’s greatest goal: repeat and repeat business from a targeted audience.

In fact, a 2004 movie version directed by Joel Schumacher, which expanded the back story of the Phantom and Christine, probably broadened the popularity of the show in all of its touring guises. Interestingly, these cinematic renderings don’t diminish, but rather heighten, the appeal of the theatrical versions.

“The Phantom” has as its most original conceit the world that Webber created for the story: the theatrical world of the opera, which is heightened even more with the Phantom roaming underneath a Parisian opera house in a grotto every bit as over-the-top as the productions above it.

This world of tenors, sopranos, divas, impresarios, fat Italian leading men singing slightly off key and masked balls that would make Marie Antoinette blush with envy is beautifully and brightly recreated at the Kennedy Center. It’s a wonderland that still works year after year, which, to the theatrically inclined, is the real charm of the show.

I defy anyone to rattle off the names of the Kennedy Center performers in the parts of Christine and the Phantom off the top of their head (it’s Marni Raab and John Cudia), although they do more than justice to their formidable tasks. But the real stars here—as always—are the full orchestra, the costume and set designers, and the sound folks who enhance the voices and music to within an inch of the life of your ears.

The thing about “The Phantom of the Opera” is that it is just about the most romantic, most shameless dessert of an opera ever staged. Webber never again did anything quite this rich—only “Aspects of Love” comes close musically in its repetitive, inward-bound, seductive score.

Webber followed “Phantom” with “Sunset Boulevard,” which critics tended to like but never really took off, and the unlikely “Whistle Down the Wind,” a project that saw him venture into folksy country and pop-rock music, unsuccessfully. His most recent effort is “The Woman in White,” based on a Victorian ghost story.

But who needs ghosts when you have “The Phantom of the Opera.” So go hear “The Music of the Night” and other famous lyrics at the Kennedy Center this summer as “Phantom” weaves its beguiling spell—and not for the last time either.

The Phantom of the Opera through Aug. 12 Kennedy Center Opera House intersection of New Hampshire Avenue, NW and Rock Creek Parkway Tickets are to . For more information, please call (202) 467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.

About the Author

Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999