NEW YORK -- For a judgment on "The Phantom of the Opera," Andrew Lloyd Webber's latest musical, which opened last night at the Majestic Theatre, I defer to the phantom himself.
That human gargoyle has just cast a thrall over Christine Daae', the Swedish inge'nue upon whom he intends to lavish both his love and his musical inspiration. The mirror in her dressing room has opened magically and he is leading her into the bowels of the Paris Opera.
The way wends through rat-infested corridors, over fog-enshrouded catwalks and, ultimately, across a vast underground lake. Hundreds of candles rise up through the watery mists. It is a frightening landscape, but it is also eerily beautiful -- Venice, as it might appear to a late-night wanderer on hallucinogens.
Here in the golden darkness, where the subconscious indulges its deepest fantasies, the phantom hopes to make Christine his bride. "The Music of the Night" is his seduction song, and it contains the telling refrain: "Silently the senses/abandon their defenses."
That, in a rhyme, is my reaction to the musical itself.
It is a thrilling show -- as sumptuous as any on Broadway. And it touches the heart in odd and unexpected ways. But it is also a show preceded by hype of such titanic proportions (not to mention a record-shattering advance sale of $17 million) that a theatergoer can find himself burdened with false expectations.
If you put aside all preconceived notions and let the spell happen, I don't see how you can be disappointed. As with hypnosis, the trick is not to resist.
Unlike "Cats" or "Starlight Express," Lloyd Webber's other reigning Broadway hits, "Phantom" does not make a frontal attack on the spectator. Granted, the spectacle is abundant and the sleights of stagecraft are astonishing. But you can say as much of Doug Henning's magic shows. "Phantom" follows a far more insinuating tack -- luring the audience into a luxurious world of gaslight and dark shadows, caressing it with soaring melodies. Once the senses are beguiled, the surprises start coming and the velvet drapes yield up their ashen corpses.
The musical borrows its elements from Gaston Leroux's 1911 novel of the same name, a Victor Hugo-ish potboiler equally concerned with the torments of love and the torments of the torture chamber. Lacking Hugo's poetry and epic breadth, Leroux's saga is hard to take these days. Yet Lloyd Webber and his collaborators -- lyricists Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe, director Harold Prince, and the extraordinary designer Maria Bjo rnson -- have chosen to take it seriously, indeed.
They believe implicitly in the love of the masked beast (Michael Crawford) for the pre-Raphaelite beauty who sings like an angel under his tutelage, just as they believe in her passionate feelings for Raoul, the dashing vicomte who will venture into the maws of Hell to retrieve his lady fair. So many heaving breasts could have produced a spectacle of high camp. Instead, buoyed by the strains of Lloyd Webber's lush score, "Phantom" shimmers with true romanticism.
I doubt you can hear a more bewitching duet on Broadway these days than "All I Ask of You," which Raoul (Steve Barton) and Christine (Sarah Brightman) sing on the roof of the Paris Opera. They have momentarily fled the clutches of the phantom. The stars have come out and the Paris skyline twinkles in the distance. As the racing clouds pass overhead, Lloyd Webber's music enfolds them in timeless bliss.
But there, too, hiding in the gilded sculpture of angels and satyrs, is the phantom, preparing to wreak cataclysmic revenge. Indeed, with a hollow laugh, he will soon cut loose the massive chandelier in the Opera House and send it crashing to the stage.
French romanticism thrived on the juxtaposition of such extremes, raising its heros and heroines to the heights only to pitch them into the depths. The terrible and the beautiful often overlapped. The phantom is physically the most hideous of men, but does he not also possess the most sublime of souls? Such notions can strike us as dangerously swollen today.
Yet the musical restores a latter-day integrity to excess, and the remarkable staging of director Prince negotiates the sudden transitions and hairpin turns with grace and fluidity. "Phantom" is a dream. And it is a nightmare. Frequently, it is both at the same time.
The title role is certainly the kind most actors only dream of. Crawford invests it with horror and heartbreak. He has a stunning physical presence that seems to mutate with the mood of the moment. At a lavish masked ball, he looms among the guests with majestic ferocity -- death in a red plume. Yet, alone in his lair at the end, he looks spindly and shrunken -- a pathetic schoolmaster abandoned by his favorite pupil.
The show does not give him much of a past -- neither does Leroux, for that matter, other than to suggest that his deformities made him an outcast even in the cradle. Crawford, however, seems to be operating with a secret knowledge of the creature's biography. There is a wholeness to the portrayal that goes beyond the libretto's dictates and -- strange as it may sound -- a fragility that is uncommon in rampaging monsters. This will be, no doubt, the performance to beat at Tony time.
Barton conforms perfectly to the image of the romantic hero -- blond, handsome, vibrant of voice -- without succumbing to the pomposity and recklessness that can make the species appear foolish. And Sarah Brightman's luminous eyes and cherubic features are those of the eternal, and eternally enchanting, inge'nue. "Phantom," however, puts her in a difficult position.
With the phantom whispering in her ear, Christine Daae' sings like no one has ever sung before and her voice assaults Heaven's portals. Brightman is an accomplished singer, but I daresay her artistry does not reach so high. She tends to play the languishing victim better than the exalted prima donna, which robs "Phantom" of one of its essential ambiguities.
No matter. The story line holds. The emotions are engaged. And in the swirl of mist and the rustle of silk and the tumultuous unfolding of Lloyd Webber's score, all cavils are eventually stilled.
The Phantom of the Opera, music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Lyrics by Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe. Book by Lloyd Webber and Stilgoe. Directed by Harold Prince. Production design by Maria Bjo rnson; lighting, Andrew Bridge; choreography, Gillian Lynne. With Michael Crawford, Sarah Brightman, Steve Barton, Cris Groenendaal, Nicholas Wyman, Judy Kaye. At the Majestic Theatre in New York.