- The Washington Times - Friday, August 20, 2004

“The Phantom of the Opera” has haunted theaters for 16 years — and not a trace of tatter.

In the current touring production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber smash, Harold Prince’s often magical staging is intact, as are Maria Bjornson’s lavish belle epoque sets and jewel-toned costumes.

In fact, the musical’s evocation of the Paris Opera House in 1881 — gilded statuary, infamous chandelier and ornate fringed draperies — looks particularly fine in Baltimore’s newly restored Hippodrome Theatre, which was built at the turn of the last century.

“The Phantom of the Opera,” based on Gaston Leroux’s novel, blends a contemporary Broadway musical score with lightly comical opera pastiches — one of which, a scene from the faux opera “Hannibal,” features a full-size elephant rolled onstage during a climactic moment.

A completely sung-through musical — none of that pesky dialogue to contend with — it tells the doomed tale of the Phantom (Gary Mauer), a freak of nature and a musical (and, legend has it, architectural) prodigy who falls in love with a young soprano named Christine (Rebecca Pitcher). He risks all, even resorting to killing a few people who won’t bend to his will, to make her a prima donna.

The 36-member cast attacks the musical with such intensity and fervor you never would guess the material has been performed since Ronald Reagan was president.

Mr. Mauer as the Phantom possesses a thundering voice. While he is forceful and scary as the masked figure who haunts the catacombs beneath the Paris Opera House, he also conveys the character’s sensitive, poetic side. He is truly a wounded creature, and his passion and hurt come through in the signature songs “The Music of the Night” and “The Point of No Return.”

As Christine, the guileless soprano he takes under his mad tutelage, Rebecca Pitcher has a robust lyric coloratura, nothing fragile or ephemeral about it. Her strong vocals and lithe physical presence make Christine less a victim and more a young woman caught unawares by forces beyond her control.

Tim Martin Gleason, whom Washington audiences might remember as the lead in Signature Theatre’s original musical “The Rhythm Club” a few seasons back, plays Raoul, the rich nobleman who also loves Christine. While he sings deftly, Mr. Gleason comes across as a blue-blooded greenhorn, so his plot to trap the Phantom lacks a certain critical weight.

As Madame Giry, the stiff-backed ballet mistress who knows and honors the secrets of the Opera House, Patti Davidson-Gorbea suggests a woman of hard-won wisdom and discipline.

Especially delightful is Kate Wray, playing her ballerina daughter, Meg. Miss Wray’s erect posture and pert bearing remind you of the Degas sculpture of the young dancer, and whether she’s in motion or standing still, her feet are always in one of ballet’s six positions.

Jimmy Smagula’s tenor is particularly sweet and clear in the role of the posturing opera star Ubaldo Piangi. As the profit-minded new owners of the opera, David Cryer and D.C. Anderson bring a seasoned levity to their stock characters.

This being an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, the score’s ceaseless repetition is nearly enough for you to want to stage a mad scene of your own. The music is lush and over-the-top, with tinges of eroticism, but the recurring motifs get tedious after a while. The touring company includes a live orchestra, but it’s so heavy on the synthesized keyboards that the pastiche of opera and Broadway melodies sounds like Yes meets Bizet.

The lack of a full sound is definitely a problem at the Hippodrome — for whatever reasons, both the orchestra and the voices sound at times as if they are being piped through a coffee can.

Although it appears that few corners were cut transferring the elaborate set to a touring production, there have been cast cutbacks, and the skimpiness shows in the ballet scenes and in the usually bombastic Act 2 opener, “Masquerade.”

For the most part, however, “The Phantom’s” magic remains potent. Audiences are still amazed by the traveling chandelier — which rises above their heads during the overture as if floating on air and then crashes down during the first act’s climax — as well as by the show’s effects, which include an underground lake and the Phantom’s exquisitely creepy, candlelit grotto.

Beyond the visual, “The Phantom of the Opera” retains a majestic charm in its tale of an artist saddled with a hideous form and a misshapen soul.

***

WHAT: “The Phantom of the Opera” by Andrew Lloyd Webber

WHERE: Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St., Baltimore

WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Oct. 3.

TICKETS: $15 to $72.50

PHONE: 800/889-8457


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