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'Phantom' vs. 'Love': Which One Is All You Need?

Sunday, July 30, 2006; P02

In Las Vegas, this is the summer of "Love," the mega-hyped Cirque du Soleil show featuring Beatles tunes, which opened June 30 at the Mirage resort. Across the street at the Venetian, the highly anticipated "Phantom" -- a streamlined version of Broadway's "Phantom of the Opera" -- premiered June 24 in a custom-built theater. So which gives you more thrills for your bills? We recently checked out both 90-minute productions on consecutive evenings, opting for the "cheap seats" (Las Vegas style, that is) to see which one measured up to the buzz.

-- John Deiner

VENUE: Only in Vegas would a show's setting be part of the entertainment value. "Phantom" is housed in a $40 million theater -- tucked deep within the Venetian -- modeled on the Paris Opera House, complete with an opulent stage and a dome. Fabric covering the walls drops during the show's opening moments to reveal a gilded gallery of faux Parisians (pretty eerie, actually) standing in boxes on both sides of the audience.

"Love" consumes Siegfried and Roy's old digs, which have been retrofitted (for more than $130 million, including the cost of the show) into a theater-in-the-round. Seats crowd the cross-shaped stage and soar to the ceiling (getting to the theater's nether regions requires a climb up dimly lit steps and much help from ushers clad like British bobbies, though Sherpas would also come in handy). Video screens, ropes, catwalks, lighting: Everything is exposed and, upon first view, tantalizing.

Advantage: Tossup

MUSIC: You'd think this would be an easy call . . . and it is. "Phantom" is an 18-scene extravaganza that deflabs the Andrew Lloyd Webber Tony winner but keeps the tunes intact (Lloyd Webber and original director Harold Prince did the pruning themselves). They're all here, from "Angel of Music" to "Music of the Night," belted out beautifully by Broadway-caliber performers to a live orchestra.

Still, Andrew has nothing on John, Paul, George and Ringo. More than 130 Beatles tunes -- dozens of snippets and fuller versions of "I Want to Hold Your Hand," "Hey Jude," "Lady Madonna," etc. -- have been incorporated into "Love," gorgeously remixed and remastered by original Beatles producer Sir George Martin and his son, Giles. It's often hard to tell where one song ends and the next begins. Further, an amazing sound system, including speakers built into the seats, envelops you in music. Simply astounding.

Advantage: "Love"

WOW FACTOR: It's hard to top the first few minutes of "Phantom," when its fabled, doomed chandelier assembles itself over the audience (its demise toward show's end is unexpectedly anticlimactic). But it tries mightily to keep impressing, with pyrotechnics, gorgeous sets (including the Phantom's glowing underground lair) and lush costumes.

If you've seen Cirque -- part circus, part ballet, part who-knows-what-else -- you usually know what to expect: acrobats, trapeze artists, crazy costumes. But the circus aspect of "Love" is kept to a minimum, with more dancing than in other Vegas Cirque shows, such as "O." That's a good thing (if you've seen one spandexed performer twirling by her toes, you've seen 'em all). Not that "Love" always makes a lot of sense -- "Help!," for instance, features a bunch of guys hot-dogging on roller skates -- but it sure is fun to watch, and there are so many Beatles references tucked within the show's sophisticated mayhem that it would take several viewings to mine them. Highlights include "Octopus's Garden," when the darkened arena becomes the depths of the ocean, luminescent jellyfish floating through the air; "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds," accompanied by thousands of tiny, synchronized lights dangling from above; and "Drive My Car," an exuberant free-for-all featuring the VW bug from the cover of "Abbey Road."

Advantage: "Love"

CROWD: At a 7 p.m. Thursday performance of "Phantom," we were taken aback by the large number of children and young adults. We were even more surprised when just about everyone stuck around for the show's final two scenes after a malfunction prompted an unplanned 25-minute intermission.

We expected the Friday crowd at the 10:30 p.m. "Love" to be more rambunctious (except for that 28-year-old birthday girl rocking out next to us). Instead, applause was oddly muted -- and were we the only ones singing along to "All You Need Is Love?" If so, sorry, everyone.

Advantage: "Phantom"

VIEW FROM THE CHEAP SEATS: We weren't under the dome or flanked by fake people, but from our $75 perch at "Phantom," we had a terrific panoramic view and could watch that chandelier shimmy without tilting our head.

Our $69 "Love" seat was a row from the top but offered a grand perspective of the pandemonium below. Because the seating was so steep, there was nothing to block our view -- unless, of course, you count the video screens that descend from the rafters several times. Only once (during "Hey Jude") did we find them intrusive, and once was too much.

Advantage: "Phantom"

BOTTOM LINE: If you liked "Phantom of the Opera" on Broadway but were wondering "When will this end?," you'll love "Phantom." You get a rich, effects-laden theatrical experience, with plenty of time left to shoot craps in the casino. But unless you just don't get the Beatles, or don't enjoy music in general, or find endless spectacle tiring, you can't do better in Vegas these days than "Love." It's one of the best shows to hit the Strip in a long time.

Tickets for "Phantom" (866-641-7469, http://www.phantomlasvegas.com) are $75 to $150; dark Tuesdays (starting Sept. 11, dark Wednesdays instead of Tuesdays). Tickets for "Love" (800-963-9634, http://www.mirage.com) are $69 to $150; dark Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

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