- The Washington Times - Monday, June 25, 2007

“The Phantom of the Opera” is there, inside the Kennedy Center Opera House.

Andrew Lloyd Webber should be pleased. Though the composer was one of the first to bring popular music into musical theater, he’s always insisted his work (much of it through-composed) is operatic.

When interviewed in December while receiving his Kennedy Center Honor, I asked him if his next project would be an opera or a musical. “What’s the difference?” he responded. “Is ‘Phantom of the Opera’ an opera?”

Maybe, maybe not.

But this musical about opera certainly features some wonderfully clever operatic pastiches. And with accomplished singing, sumptuous costumes, gorgeous sets and impressive effects, the Cameron Mackintosh/Really Useful Theatre Company’s national touring production feels perfectly at home in the District’s most prestigious show biz venue.

In fact, the music phoned in by the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra is the only element out of place.

As the highest-grossing entertainment event of all time and the longest-running show on Broadway — nearly 20 years — the story should be familiar to just about everybody. The curtain rises on an auction of the contents of Paris’ Opera Populaire in 1911. After a few items are sold, lot 666 is unveiled: the opera house’s majestic chandelier, in pieces. The mystery of the Phantom of the Opera who destroyed it has never been solved, the auctioneer tantalizingly notes.

Flashback some 20 years. Prima donna soprano Carlotta Giudicelli (Kim Stengel) quits a production after the mysterious Opera Ghost makes a backdrop fall, almost harming her.

In her place, the managers decide to try a new talent, young Christine Daae (Marni Raab). Christine has been taking lessons from some unnamed tutor and her performance is a triumph. That tutor is quickly shown to be the Phantom (John Cudia), a man of musical genius but with a black soul. Though Christine looks beyond the mask and sees the tortured, sensitive man underneath, it’s opera patron Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny (Greg Mills) she really loves. However, the Phantom will stop at nothing to make Christine both a star on stage and in his life.

Mr. Cudia, who’s played the role on Broadway, leads the 36-member company with aplomb as the Phantom. He can be a bit over the top but then, that’s what the story calls for. The tenor moves with ease between both extremes the piece demands — the soft, sweet pleadings of a sensitive soul and the mad rantings of a murderer.

Miss Raab more than holds her own against the veteran showman. She reminds you of the original Christine, the soprano Sarah Brightman. When the Phantom takes her down to his lair beneath the house and pleads, “Sing for me,” Miss Raab is captivating, completely convincing us that she’s singing for her dear life.

Even the smaller players in the cast are top-notch. Among the standouts is John Kuether, who plays a few roles, but is particularly good as the auctioneer. He sets the tone with his sprightly voice and brings considerable acting chops to a minor role. (Unfortunately, it’s difficult to understand the lyrics in many of the chorus numbers.)

There is plenty on stage to savor, too, in Harold Prince’s excellent production. A ballet takes place on one end of the stage while childhood friends Raoul and Christine are reunited at the other end. The late Maria Bjornson’s sets and costumes are magnificent, with Carlotta’s dresses both “on” and “off” stage being especially sumptuous. The rooftop set, with its vision of Paris, is like a beautiful painting. And there are a few pyrotechnics to go along with the creepy Phantom theme. Both set and effects are brought together magically when the Phantom descends behind the gilt-colored proscenium one wishes the Opera House could keep.

However, Mr. Lloyd Webber’s score, once so imaginative, is now a little dated and isn’t helped by the lackluster performance of the Opera House Orchestra led by Glenn Langdon. There was nothing operatic about their work. The singers and musicians are amplified, and the electronic sound of the piano, for one, didn’t serve this otherwise ravishing production.

Mr. Lloyd Webber is now at work on a sequel to the most successful musical of all time, but his new kitten recently destroyed the entire score.

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