Monday, Feb. 23, 2009 | 2 a.m.
If You Go
- What: Phantom: The Las Vegas Experience
- When: 7 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Monday and Saturday
- Where: Phantom Theatre at the Venetian
- Admission: 414-9000, www.phantomlasvegas.com
- Running time: 95 minutes
- Audience advisory: Plunging chandelier, startlingly blinding lights, unshakable melodies
Beyond the Sun
I’ve seen Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “The Phantom of the Opera” at least five times, in four cities, and I can say without reservation that Las Vegas provides the finest “Phantom” experience possible. Beautifully sung and acted, richly costumed and detailed, the Venetian’s resident production brings grace, grandeur and good humor to Lloyd Webber’s long-running gimmicky gothic gewgaw.
“Phantom,” which opened on Broadway in 1986, is the sole survivor of the British Invasion of the 1980s, when money-manufacturing musical juggernauts like Lloyd Webber’s “Evita” and “Cats” competed with “Miss Saigon” and “Les Miserables” to dominate Broadway. Still playing at the Majestic Theatre in New York, “Phantom” has notched more than 8,500 performances, making it the longest-running show in Broadway history, and there are companies in London, Osaka, Buenos Aires, Budapest, Warsaw and Copenhagen, along with a current 11-city U.S. tour.
These “event musicals” turned live theater into a must-see occasion again, something to talk about, and “Phantom: The Las Vegas Experience” still deserves the buzz.
Most shows get only one dazzling effect that keeps the word-of-mouth moving — think the heaven-bound hubcap in “Cats,” the spectacular redemptive helicopter in “Miss Saigon.”
But “Phantom” is blessed with more than a few prime specimens of what they used to call coup de theatre. Of course there’s that famous plummeting chandelier (come on, after 20 years, it’s not like this is much of a spoiler). The Vegas version not only engineers the most breathtakingly dangerous-looking drop I’ve seen, but our chandelier puts itself together at the top of the show, its glowing, glittering component parts wheeling and twirling over the audience like baroque spaceships.
Along with that lethal light fixture, “Phantom” has a handful of nifty stage tricks up its puffy sleeve, including several stunningly effective changes of audience perspective, spooky surround sound, an ingeniously staged descent to a subterranean lair, a candlelit gondola ride and real indoor fireworks.
When I say that “Phantom” has a built-in audience, I mean it two ways. Opulently appointed in crimson and gold, the Venetian’s purpose-built rococo opera house comes pre-populated with a houseful of elegantly-dressed effigies who watch the show along with us.
A side effect of “Phantom’s” glory is that it kind of makes you wish that more scripted shows could work here, and that Vegas could afford to lavish this kind of love and resources on a more deserving classic musical or two.
Dusting off a doomed beauty-beast-beauty love triangle — ghastly ghoul loves giddy girl who loves good-looking guy — the script is a convenient framework for a series of cinematic scenes, including a starlit rooftop duet that may well have inspired Baz Luhrman’s delirious “Moulin Rouge,” and a big, old-school Broadway production number, “Masquerade,” with the entire costumed cast arrayed on a sweeping staircase.
The sterling cast and 18-piece orchestra should qualify as one of “Phantom’s” special effects. Porcelain-pale Kristi Holden is swooningly delicate as opera ingenue Christine Daae, the focus of the Phantom’s fatal attraction, and her creamy coloratura more than measures up to the skyscraping standard set by the original Christine, Sarah Brightman. Holden is heroically partnered by Andrew Ragone, ripely romantic and amusingly earnest as Christine’s dashing suitor Raoul. Hilariously, Ragone returns for his curtain call with his swashbuckler shirt torn open, ready for his romance novel portrait.
And as the Phantom, Anthony Crivello reaches the Svengali’s menace and his pathos, and with his multicolored voice ranging from an eerie, echoed whisper to an intense, impassioned high baritone, he can make you believe the silly stuff he’s singing.
Lloyd Webber’s poperatic score, while damnably hummable, is Opera for Dummies, sweetened and simplified for mass consumption — the music suddenly takes on a throbbing rock pulse when the title song first appears. But the composer sneaks in some witty asides for real opera fans: a wisecrack about “far too many notes,” the opera buffa business he gives to the huffy diva Carlotta, the Gilbert & Sullivan-esque banter expertly navigated by the beleaguered new owners of the haunted opera house.
You know how when someone at work offhandedly mentions some long-forgotten tune and then you can’t stop humming it? That’s what the score of “Phantom” is like.
Lloyd Webber has front-loaded “Phantom” with three of his most potent melodies. And happily, “Think of Me,” “The Music of the Night,” and “All I Ask of You” are likable, because whether they’re bombastically thundering from a massive organ or tinkling out of an antique music box, these dopily repetitive and irradicably infectious tunes tell us over and over and over again that “the Phantom of the Opera ... is in your mind.”
Good luck getting him out of there.