KPBS AIRDATE: August 3, 1994
It was an evening of perfect counterparts. Dinner at Wolfgang Puck’s in South Coast Plaza and “The Phantom of the Opera” at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. A well-matched pair of the over-rated and overblown. You probably aren’t interested in my culinary comments, so I’ll stick to the theatrical fare.
The third national touring company of the box-office record-breaking “Phantom” has settled into Costa Mesa for a 7 1/2 week run. Considering its relatively short stay, a tremendous amount of preparation was made for the audience-grabbing event. The beautiful Segerstrom Hall has been reconfigured to accommodate the massive pyrotechnical requirements of the Phantom and his 35-member onstage entourage.
Usually, touring companies are a pretty stripped-down version of the elaborate original, but no one will feel cheated here. All the glamour, spectacle and extravaganza that have been associated with the blockbuster musical are left intact. The famed chandelier is hoisted and comes crashing down; the legendary candles shoot up magically from the floor; the boat sails; the Phantom is risen. You won’t miss a trick. And basically, it’s all trick and shtick. But if you like your drama on the Gothic side, your singing on the operatic side and your music on the derivative side, you’re gonna love this “Phantom” as much as any other.
Some people are just Phantomaniacs, logging in leading men and reprises of “Music of the Night” like so many notches on their theatrical belt. As you can tell, I’m not a major, big-time fan of the “Phantom,” nor of its creator. But I did trek up to L.A. one time to catch Michael Crawford in the lead role, and I must say, it was one of those unforgettable experiences — a performance so thrilling that your heart races just a little bit every time you remember it.
This new Phantom, Grant Norman, isn’t one of those heart-racers. He has a lovely voice for the tenor-signature “Music of the Night,” but he sounds awfully nasal in everything else. He does underscore the melancholy and lifelong rejection of the disfigured wizard, and that’s a plus. But he can’t hold the proverbial candle to Crawford, whose onstage charisma was palpable, even in the nosebleed territory way, way up at L.A. ‘s Ahmanson Theatre.
As the confused and confusing Christine, Trilby to the Phantom’s Svengali, Adrienne McEwan is a clear, nimble-voiced soprano, but that doesn’t clarify her character. As the pre-Christine prima donna, Carlotta, Geena L. Jeffries is also in splendid voice. The two theater-managers, who are supposed to provide comic relief, do neither. There is only one real character in the play. And, many times during the piece, we ask the same question that is silently posed at the end of the musical: When the Phantom’s gone, what’s left?
What’s left is pure phantasmagoria. And that’s what most people come for. The costumes, the scenery, the techno-wizardry. A freakish display, if you ask me, just like the phantom himself. But give them something monstrous, and audiences will want a peek. Joseph Conrad called it “fascination for the abomination.” I call it Andrew Lloyd Webber. You may call it an exhilarating evening of theater. In any event, you can’t look away; you have to see it at least once.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1994 Patté Productions Inc.