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The Other 'Phantom' Lands in S.F.

September 30th 1988. E 1:2
Written for The San Francisco Chronical (Weekend Datebook) by Joshua Kosman

Mishaps and mysteries far beyond what we normally see at the War Memorial Opera House are the order of the day in "The Phantom of the Opera," a high-spirited free adaption of the Gaston Leroux novel, which opened Wednesday night at Theatre on the Square.

This is not, repeat, not the Andrew Lloyd Webber London and Broadway extravaganza of the same name; leave that for fashion-concious New Yorkers hungering after the latest "hot ticket." Ken Hill's stage adaption of the turn-of-the-century thriller, preceding Lloyd Webber's and first mounted in 1984, is something more modest, a pleasant, laugh-stocked show that provides its audience with silly, campy fun.

In keeping with the operatic motif, the show's music is culled from the operas of Gounod, Offenbach, Verdi and Donizetti among others, all fitted out with new words for the occasion.

This "Phantom" is an entertainment in the tradition of backstage comedy. We get lots of backstage machinery, dressing rooms and front-of-the-house perspectives, all imaginatively designed by Joe Vanek and rolled out by a hard-working stage crew. The cast includes a full complement of theatrical types, including an egotistical, mush-brained tenor, an egotistical, imperious soprano, and an egotistical, manipulative company manager.

For scenes of opera performances, the theater itself becomes the Paris Opera House, complete with lighting that manages to convey house lights convincingly, and an occasional bit of business in and around the aisles. There is also a particuarly precarious-looking chandelier poised directly over the seats that were assigned to critics on opening night. Pure chance, no doubt.

The Phantom, ensconced in the labyrinthine lower reaches of the Opera House, has a sweet setup for himself. The Opera management is required to supply him with a monthly stipend of 20,000 francs, and he has the exclusive use of his private box in the opera house. He communicates his wishes in mysterious letters signed "O.G." (for "Opera Ghost"). If he is crossed, bad things happen to good people, chandeliers fall with deadly precision, backstage ropes double as nooses, and violin strings become lethal weapons.

Most of the show mines this vein of humor with lively charm. Hill and director Peter Farago manage to get laughs by the most time-honoured methods: there are many double-takes, simple running gags and numerous theater jokes. "Don't you dare faint!" the Opera's director hollers at a vapor-stricken chorus girl. "That's only for principals!" The jokes may be time-worn, but they're skillfully done, and even the most obvious setups generally pay off.

The show also provides a panoply of nifty special effects for the Phantom's nasty tricks, some of which are genuinely startling. One disappointment is the Phantom's disfigurement, which looks like little more than a bad skin rash.

In the end, of course, the Phantom's sad tale must come to a melodramatic conclusion. It's an ending whose dubious pathos is only marginally prepared for by the farcical humor that's come before, but I'm not sure what else they could have done.

Musical accompaniment is provided by Barry Koron at the grand piano and synthesizer. Though the music contributes a little to the sense of an operatic world, it's largely a sidelight in the over-all scheme of things. There are some enjoyable operatic sendups in the snippets of the Opera's ill-fated production of Gounod's "Faust," including the reliable humorous business of singers determined to upstage one another. There is also a nice rewriting of the sextet from "Lucia di Lammermoor" for six characters about to perish most gruesomely by the Phantom's hand.

But otherwise, the musical interludes contribute mostly maudlin lyrics of notable banality: unlike the rest of the show, they seem to take the sentimental side of opera entirely at face value. The Mozart excerpt promised by the advertisements turns out to be simply the last 20 measures of "Don Giovanni."

The program kindly lists the arias that have been used. This is a good thing, since most of the principals sing so tune-lessly that an opera enthusiast would be hard pressed to identify them without help. The Phantom is supposed to have been driven to the Paris Opera by his love of music, born of a beautiful singing voice, and Kevin Gray fulfills the premise well: His clear, pure tenor is a pleasure to listen to.

Not so the other leads, whose musical abilities lag far behind their dramatic skills. Sarah Rice in particular, as the young singer the Phantom loves, doesn't make much of a romantic center for the show. Most of the time she makes a vague and ill-focused presence, and her singing, exposed to a painful degree in challenging arias by Verdi and Offenbach, is out of the question.

Stan Rubin is a bustling dynamo as Monsieur Richard, the new director of the Opera, a self-conceived no-nonsense fellow who refuses to believe in the Phantom's existence. His continuing routine with his assistant Remy (Bob Amaral), who supplies the words for which Richard is perpetually at a loss, is deftly choreographed.

Ruth Kobart is a marvelously spectral presence as the house manager Madam Giry, a dour, graveyard-voiced woman who takes particular care not to offend the Phantom, whom she refers to as "HIM." And in the romantic-tenor role or, if you like, the Zeppo Marx role of Raoul, Merwin Foard makes a suitably ardent and dim-witted lover.

The second act gets a boost with the appearance of Paul Schoeffler as a Persian magician. The evening if also enlivened by Christa Moore's charming turn as a young member of the ballet corps who spends her time fluttering around the sidelines on pointe and commenting naively with ludicrously ballet-tinged mannerisms. When Raoul asks the whereabouts of his beloved's dressing room, she responds by pointing with an impeccably lofted toe.