Glitzy staging aside, it's the duet by Christine and the Phantom that is this musical's true nature

June 10, 1991|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Staff Correspondent

Washington -- Darkness,the mystery of the unknown, a damp subterranean lair and the elegant but dangerous man who lives there.

Even more than Andrew Lloyd Webber's melodious score or Maria Bjornson's lavish scenic effects -- which are at least as lavish at the Kennedy Center as they are on Broadway -- the allure of "The Phantom of the Opera" is its sexuality.

Specifically, it is the Victorian view of sex as a forbidden pleasure. And beauty's attraction for the beast has rarely been as spectacular as it is here.

Touring shows are usually stripped-down versions of their Broadway counterparts, but at a reported $10 million, this "Phantom" -- booked into the Kennedy Center for three months -- cost $2 million more than its New York cousin.

And you can see where the money went. It went for the Paris Opera House's misty, underground lake on which the Phantom navigates a gondola. It went for the elaborately gilded proscenium arch, on which the Phantom prowls like an ominous black cat. It went for the famed chandelier, which the outraged Phantom sends crashing onto the stage. And, of course, it went for the technology that enables these mega-effects to travel..

But getting back to sex, let's not forget that "Phantom" is about more than scenery. The theme of repressed sexuality is boldly threaded throughout Harold Prince's direction, and, particularly, Charles Hart's lyrics.

Consider this example from "The Music of the Night," the show's best song. "Close your eyes and surrender to your darkest dreams," the Phantom sings to Christine, the ingenue he spirits away to his lair for late-night singing lessons. Presumably, he's telling her to surrender to his music -- or is he?

As Christine, Teri Bibb clearly has another kind of surrender in mind. Proper Victorian girl that she is, Christine may protest, but Ms. Bibb's swooning, melting gestures tell a different story. And, when her voice soars with that of Kevin Gray's Phantom, their shared musical ecstasy is an unmistakable metaphor.

Mr. Gray, who also played the Phantom on Broadway, is fine in the part; his voice has an almost haunting quality. But his movement lacks the threateningly enticing grace of Michael Crawford, who originated the role.

In the lackluster role of Christine's more suitable suitor, Keith Buterbaugh conveys the requisite wholesomeness, but his intonation wavers and he overacts in his final scene. However, as the temperamental diva supplanted by Christine, Patricia Hurd has what it takes -- pipes, girth and comic flair.

"The Phantom of the Opera" began in 1911 as a potboiler by Gaston Leroux, and despite numerous stage versions and more than a half-dozen film adaptations, the story hasn't gained any significant literary depth in the interim. But it has a primal appeal that the musical exploits with a vengeance. The show may be one of the most expensive cheap thrills ever to hit the legitimate stage, but surrendering to it is a sweet thrill, indeed.

"The Phantom of the Opera" continues at the Kennedy Center through Aug. 31; call 202-467-4600.

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