CRITICAL EYE The Phantom Unmasked

The Phantom of the Opera is the most sumptuous feast ever served to the American audience.

It is the biggest undertaking in the tot ring-theater universe. The Phantom of the Opera, which runs March 2 through April 17 at Fair Park’s Music Hall, is history on wheels.

The ersatz Paris Opera chandelier over the audience weighs 1,200 pounds and glistens with 35,000 beads. When the Phantom at ducts his beloved Christine and floats with her across his subterranean lake. 181 candies rise from the mists. The proscenium arch framing the show features 37 sculptures, which is one reason the show requies up to two weeks to install in a theater-you don’t back up the truck to the loading dock and drop this one off.

A cast ol 36 is not enough, either. In the crowd scenes, there are not only human performers on stage, but also 15 robotic creatures at work. In a single performance, 550 pounds of dry ice and 10 fog machines are déployé d, as are 230 costumes, 54 separate stage-machinery motors, 10 massive Victorian-style theatrical drapes, 32 orchestra musicians and a stage-crew of 60.

Are you worried that you’ve paid $60 to watch a read show? Put your mind and your pocketbook to rest-you will see and hear every penny of it. The Phantom of the Opera is tie most sumptuous movable feast ever served to the American audience. It’s so expensive that it must “sit down,” as they say in the tour industry, for a minimum of seven weeks wherever it plays. Such a huge booking-so many 3.000-seat nights to fill-has brought together the Dallas Summer Musicals, the NationsBank Dallas Broadway Series and the Dal as Opera as a team of local presenters.

That triumvirate is prepared to offer a jaw-dropping, luxuriant telling of Gaston Leroux’s 1911 tale, which is actually based on several tidbits of truth.

Take the Paris Opera building, for instance, Opened in 1875 and designed by Charles Gamier, it really does have a lake beneath the stage. That fifth-basement reservoir originally provided water for hydraulic stage machinery. No longer needed for such purposes, it can be tapped by firefighters should the unthinkable happen.

And what of the famous falling chandelier scene? In 1896, as Rose Caron sang her way to the end of Act I of Thetis and Pelee, a short circuit in the chandelier caused a fire in the ceiling. It released a counterweight. The weight crashed through the fifth level of balcony seating down to seats in the fourth level. In seat 13 a woman was crushed to death.

Leroux wrote his novel, as researcher George Perry has pointed out in The Complete Phantom of the Opera, with a journalistic tone of veracity, using the premise that there really was an “Opera ghost.”

Needless to say, there have been numerous film treatments of the tale, beginning with Lon Chaney’s 1925 corker. And the present stage edition prompted the appearance of several other versions-the creators of each will swear to you that they had the idea before Andrew Lloyd Webber. Indeed, Ken Hill’s hokey 1984 version, which puts dreadful lyrics to classical music, was Lloyd Webber’s inspiration.

It’s the official rolling tour of Lloyd Webber’s show, however-the one that struck London like a thunderbolt in 1986, electrified Broadway the same way in 1988 and still sells out in both cities-that is now playing in Dallas. Harold Prince directed it. Lloyd Webber’s Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar collaborator Tim Rice was busy with Chess, so neophyte Charles Hart was signed on to work with Richard Stilgoe on lyrics. Choreographer Gillian Lynne heightened the Degas-dancerly effects of the show. And Maria Bjornson, of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the English National Opera, is the outstanding artist who designed the masterful extravagance of the whole thing.

This tour is said to have cost about $10 million to stage. And in that figure is your most important peek into the inner workings of The Phantom of the Opera.

The man behind the phantom is London’s Cameron Mackintosh, who is believed to have earned more than 200 million pounds as the producer of this and most of the other British mega-musicals that have “invaded” the American stage in the last decade. Shows such as Cats, Song & Dance, Les Misérables and Miss Saigon. In addition, he’s produced The Boyfriend, Godspell Anything Goes, Tomfoolery, Follies, Side by Side by Sondheim, Oliver!, Little Shop of Horrors, Oklahoma!, My Fair Lady, Trelawny and, most recently, Five Guys Named Moe.

Mackintosh, now 46, was smitten by the theater as a child and began his career as an actor, working in a production of Oliver! in 1965 and ’66. He would have the peculiar joy, just over a decade later, of producing the 1977 revival of the show and watching another boy wear his costume.

This is not at all a wheezing, cigar-chomping impresario who sees actors as interchangeable sets of legs and arms, but a man whose soul is woven into every activity you see on his stage.

When 1 saw Miss Saigon for the first time at the Drury Lane Theatre in London, 1 was initially bothered to find little standing signs throughout that grand temple of a theater. Then 1 read them. Mackintosh was asking his audiences at every turn to join him in donating money to the bui-doi, the children of American service people and Vietnamese natives, the Amerasian kids we orphaned when we fled that nightmare, the abandoned young people Miss Saigon is all about. The show is not only Mackintosh’s musical experiment aimed at addressing our contemporary political and human responsibilities, but also his vehicle for addressing an issue of genuine deprivation.

Largely thanks to Mackintosh’s willingness to pump earnings back into his fleet of shows, the Broadway touring circuit today is the most lucrative segment of the American theater industry: S503 million last season. The reason more people than ever are going to “bus-and-truck” road shows is that other producers have had to compete with Mackintosh’s success.

One caveat. If you’ve been disappointed-and you should have been-by the touring versions of Cats, know that the tours were not Mackintosh’s. They were tours licensed to another. lesser, producer.

What else have you heard? That Mackintosh’s Five Guys Named Moe is a small show and an aggressive sell? True. It’s a slap-happy revue of the composer Louis Jordan’s music and approaches some unsettling stereotypes to get its numbers across. But I watched Mackintosh pace the back of the Eugene O’Neill Theatre on Broadway during Five Guys’ previews. He and longtime associate Richard Jay-Alexander were seizing on every detail of the piece, rooting around for what could be made better, tighter, sharper. And when I asked Mackintosh if he couldn’t send Five Guys on tour, so that audiences outside New York could learn the Jordan canon, he told me he feared to tour it because it would be lost in the large theaters of the road show circuit. Remember, Julie Harris trying to do Driving Miss Daisy in the road show caverns of America?-here’s a producer who would have thought twice before putting her into them. “I don’t think it would be fair to the show or the audience to play Five Guys in barns,” he told me.

When you sit down to see the biggest Phanny of them all at the Music Hall, it’s true that you’re about to be Lloyd Web-bered. Within minutes of the opening auction scene, that rock backbeat will kick into the show’s main fright-night theme and you’ll once again know the potency, as Noel Coward put it in Private Lives, of cheap music. And no, you’re not getting that heartthrob star Michael Crawford in the lead role in Dallas. But, don’t worry. A Mackintosh cast never, ever lets you down.

My pre-review stops here, though I’ve seen the show several times. I want you to draw your own conclusions. You may see this populist work as a magnificent vulgarity, no question. But, on the other hand, it is our court spectacle, in an age when we’re trying to pull down thrones, to witness our evolution into a world of privileged commoners. We’re no classless society yet, but there’s a $10 ticket available to the Dallas run of Phantom.

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