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Ken Hill's Version of the 'Phantom:' No Holy Terror

December 1st 1989. F 1:2
Written for The Los Angeles Times by Dan Sullivan

There are more ways than one to screw up "The Phantom of the Opera". One way is to turn the Phantom into Jack the Ripper. That's the approach of the latest film version, whose appeal would seem to be limited to surgery fans.

Another way is to spoof the story. That's the approach of Ken Hill's "Phantom" at the Wiltern Theatre - not to be confused with Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Phantom" at the Ahmanson, which is said to have been inspired by Hill's version.

Not that anybody would confuse the two shows. "Phantom" at the Ahmanson has a trashy score, but it also has the scale of grand opera. "Phantom" at the Wiltern - that glorious monument to zigzag Art Deco - is dinky. You have heard of bus and truck shows. This one looks as if it folds into a Volkswagen van, with the cast sitting up front.

This needn't have been fatal. Audiences have a way of adjusting to reduced production circumstances. We wouldn't have held the show's poverty-row look against it, if the events transpiring within its shaky frame had been funnier or creepier.

In fact, a couple of stage pictures work better than the Ahmanson version. It's clearer, for instance, that we're on the roof of the Paris Opera, when the story heads there. And I rather liked the Phantom's using an old rowboat, when he spirits Christine across the dry-ice lake. A touch of verisimilitude in an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.

Hill's idea is to tell the story like a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, putting his words to prim tunes by Donizetti, Meyerbeer, Gounod etc. This is fine when he's joshing the denizens of the opera world - the demon soprano, the swinish tenor, the monster ballet mistress and the money-grubbing manager (exemplified respectively by Suzanna Grodner, Vince Trani, Laurie Franks and William Linton.)

But the method is counter-productive when Hill is trying to invoke terror, even make-believe terror. It's perfectly possible to start out joshing a horror tale, and little by little seducing the audience to believe in it. Broadway's "Dracula" managed the trick. Lloyd Webber's "Phantom" manages it, at least for some viewers. Hill's "Phantom" can't. The libretto is too talky, and the music too decorous. Always we're outside the story, having a mild chuckle at it.

This will do for a "Phantom of the Opera" sketch, but not for a full evening. As Hill points out in the program, "Phantom" has the resonance of myth. We need to come into some sort of emotional contact with the Opera Ghost. Hill hasn't found a way to make it happen. His Phantom (Steve Blanchard) isn't a figure of dread or pathos, merely a gentleman burglar with a mild yen for sopranos. No wonder Christine (Rebecca Baxter) doesn't seem to be afraid of him.

Hill also makes a mistake by incorporating some of the most tedious parts of the original story, complications that the Lloyd Webber version rightly realized only gummed up the action. The chase to the Phantom's lair in the second act is as interminable here as it is in the Lon Chaney silent film - more so, in the production's lack of scenic resources. One can only accomplish so much with smoke bombs.

Moreover, it's cruel to make Baxter sing roulades through them. The evening's good points include the fact that Baxter and most of the company can, in fact, sing; a clever sight gag that disposes of the problem of what to do about that crashing chandelier, and Robert Jensen's bumble-puppy portrayal of Christine's fiance, Raoul, a much more amusing figure than in the Ahmanson version.

In general though, this is an overextended skit that has a great deal of trouble conving the audience and itself that it is a big-ticket musical. (Top price is $35.) At the old Mayfair Music Hall, at half its playing length, it would have been heaven. Why can't shows be the size that they were meant to be? For the record, the evening is sponsored by the Los Angeles Times Fund.

Plays Tuesdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7:30 p.m., with matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. Closes Sunday. Tickets $23-35. 3790 Wilshire Blvd.; (213) 480-3232