New York Times revisits the Phantom

By JASON ZINOMAN

The paint on the balconies of the Majestic Theater looks chipped and the electronic drum machine sounds like something left over from a music video from the 1980′s. But "The Phantom of the Opera" really shows its age (17 years and running) when the signature special effect is presented. Musicals have opened and closed in the time it takes that chandelier to lumber to the floor. Looking like one of Ed Wood’s teetering flying saucers, it crashes to the stage with the force of a shopping cart, the biggest, most extravagant anticlimax in town.

Seventeen years later: Sandra Joseph and Hugh Panaro are now playing the roles of Christine and the Phantom.

Under the fearsome shadow of Hugh Panaro in "The Phantom of the Opera."
But what do you expect? It was designed during the Reagan administration. For a top-of-the-line chandelier, you will have to wait for the $40 million production of "Phantom" opening in Las Vegas next spring. But if the technology of the Broadway show seems a bit quaint, the real news is that the rest of the production has grown old gracefully. Judging by sheer invention, emotional punch and onstage talent, the venerable blockbuster still beats out almost all of the whippersnappers currently on Broadway.

Maria Bjornson’s flamboyant gothic design and Harold Prince’s fantastical staging still have the gleam of finely polished professionalism. Led by the current Phantom (there have been 10 after Michael Crawford), Hugh Panaro, an up-and-coming musical theater star who finds the right mix of shock and schmaltz, most of the cast retains the freshness of opening night.

That does not mean that Andrew Lloyd Webber haters, a large and very grumpy contingent, will be won over. Sorry, "The Music of the Night" hasn’t changed. Nor has Charles Hart’s bumbling lyrics ("You have brought me to that moment when words run dry"). But for those sentimental souls looking for a popular entertainment to transport them to a baroque, romantic new world with a powerful smoke machine, "Phantom," I’m happy to report, still delivers the goods.

Which is especially impressive, given that not long ago, the musical seemed to be on its last legs. By the fall of 2003, its peers "Miss Saigon," "Cats" and "Les Misérables" had faded away. Ticket sales were down and rumors of its demise were common around Broadway. Flash-forward to today: crowds are lined up around the corner to see the show, which regularly sells out. Last week, 99 percent of the seats were filled. In January, barring a strike, disaster or nuclear holocaust, "Phantom" will eclipse "Cats" as the longest-running show in Broadway history. What happened?

For one thing, it received a boost from Joel Schumacher’s film version of the musical, which opened in December. Even though it wasn’t a smash hit, the movie introduced a new audience to the show (as evidenced by the large number of young girls at the Majestic) and reminded old ones how superior the musical is. In fact, the bombastic film may be the only thing that makes the musical look understated.

Mr. Prince, who continues to oversee casting and reportedly checks up on the show every few months, deserves credit for tending to it with care. When the box office dipped, he never panicked and cast a former Backstreet Boy for a short-term boost in sales. Unlike so many long-running shows, "Phantom" has not resorted to stunt casting.

Although don’t be surprised if Mr. Panaro, who has been rumored on theater Web sites as the choice to star in "Lestat," Elton John’s vampire musical heading to Broadway next season, becomes a household name someday. A young, charismatic actor, he brings a maniacal energy and Grand Guignol charm to the tortured Phantom. In his hands, the show concentrates more on the horror than the romance; but only once does he turn to the audience and growl – which, considering how scenery chewing this role could be, counts as admirable restraint.

Surrounding him is a solid supporting cast who deliver disciplined performances free of the lazy flourishes that sneak into a role when an actor becomes bored by repetition. As the diva Carlotta, Anne Runolfsson flashes a hundred-watt smile and shows off a richly textured voice in the opening song, "Think of Me."

Jeff Keller and George Lee Andrews, the only actors with major roles who have been with the company since the beginning, are marvelous as the nervous theater managers who made the mistake of buying the Paris Opera House. In 2001, Mr. Prince had them switch roles to keep things fresh.

Sandra Joseph (who doesn’t perform Wednesday evenings or Saturday matinees) is perfectly competent as Christine, although in her scenes with the Phantom she can come off as a bit bland. As her other love interest, Raoul, a terribly underwritten role, Tim Martin Gleason provides a strong voice and a stiff performance. In the romantic songs, one’s mind easily wanders to the bitingly funny Lloyd Webber parody in "Spamalot," which droned on and on until the stars looked tired of their own voices.

Then again, the winking and eyebrow-raising in satirical musical comedies like "Spamalot" and "The Producers" are part of what makes the proudly melodramatic and unironic "Phantom" a nice change of pace. The musical may seem as if it is from a different time, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

"The Phantom of the Opera" is at the Majestic Theater, 247 West 44th Street, Manhattan, (212) 239-6200.

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