Music is prime in revue at Lyric Singer: Colm Wilkinson is vocal in praise of the work of Andrew Lloyd Webber.

January 28, 1996|By Michael Kilian | Michael Kilian,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

With Colm Wilkinson, you don't need falling chandeliers. Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Music of the Night," a high-style song and dance revue of the superstar composer's greatest hits, opens Tuesday at the Lyric Opera House. But you won't find the famous descending chandelier of "The Phantom of the Opera," the grand staircase of "Sunset Boulevard," the neon junkyard of "Cats" or the roller-skate railroad of "Starlight Express." Neither will you see the extravagant trappings of two early Lloyd Webber hits, "Evita" and "Jesus Christ Superstar."

The fireworks and scenic razzmatazz that have made Mr. Lloyd Webber's oeuvre synonymous with spectacle are decidedly missing from this two-act, 37-number musical retrospective.

Instead, you get a velvety, starry big-band set, with an orchestra playing on a platform right on center stage, and a lot of flashy singing and dancing from a first-rate ensemble and two star soloists, Janet Metz and Laurie Williamson. You'll see some hot-hot-hot tangos.

But mostly you have Colm Wilkinson, who first introduced "The ** Phantom of the Opera" to British theater and starred as Judas in "Jesus Christ Superstar," but is perhaps best remembered as the original Jean Valjean in the long-running non-Lloyd Webber global musical smash, "Les Miserables."

And it's no great exaggeration to say that "Music of the Night" would probably be just as big an attraction without big band, ensemble and co-stars, and with only Mr. Wilkinson standing there singing.

The Dublin native got his start as a teen-age member of an Irish blues rock group called the Chris Lamb Show Band back in the early '60s.

Irish blues rock group? Surely you remember the film "The Commitments."

"That's where I came from," said Mr. Wilkinson. "I was a singer basically, with bands and rock and roll and jazz -- a bit like the Commitments. We played clubs, dance halls, bars, anywhere they'd pay you.

"I was into black music -- Lightnin' Hopkins, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson. We used to get all the records. Ray Charles is my idol. He's the man. Stevie Wonder. Mahalia Jackson."

Mr. Wilkinson might have stayed an Irish blues rock singer. Another band he was in around 1970 proved good enough for Elvis Presley himself to come down to a Bahama Islands hotel lounge to hear -- and to seek out Mr. Wilkinson the next day to mumble something about how beautiful it was, man. Presley even recorded one of the songs Mr. Wilkinson did that night as a soul number: "I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen."

But what changed Mr. Wilkinson's life was not this rose from the King but being cast in the big Judas role in the Dublin production of "Superstar" in 1972. He played the same part in London for 2 1/2 years, sang the Che Guevara role in the album recording of Mr. Lloyd Webber's "Evita" and starred in a number of other London musicals -- becoming, as one producer balefully informed him, "the highest-paid actor on the West End."

He introduced "Phantom" to the world for Mr. Lloyd Webber at a 1985 British music festival and later played the Phantom for 4 1/2 years in Toronto.

But he didn't get to open the American "Phantom" in New York. He was tied up with another role that kept him busy for quite some time, that of the Victor Hugo hero Jean Valjean in the French-authored musical "Les Miserables," which he opened in London, Washington and New York.

"That is probably my favorite musical," he said. "I am very close personally to that role."

Still, he's very much an Andrew Lloyd Webber man and fan. Several critics have faulted "Music of the Night" for being a letdown after the first act, which concentrates on the composer's early work. And some could do without Mr. Lloyd Webber's more recent "Aspects of Love" altogether.

Not Mr. Wilkinson.

" 'Aspects' didn't work commercially, but it was a nice piece," he said. "It was just a different way of writing. It was a small piece. It didn't have those broad strokes that he had in 'Phantom.' It was more intimate."

Mr. Wilkinson said Mr. Lloyd Webber has become "very, very sensitive" to avoiding the appearance of plagiarism because he has been accused of deriving his music from classical themes. When Mr. Lloyd Webber was writing the music for "Cats," he was worried that "Memory" might sound like something else, and went to his father, a concert organist, to play it for him.

"And he said, 'Dad, what does that sound like to you?' " Mr. Wilkinson said. "And his father said, 'It sounds like a million pounds to me, Andrew. That's what it sounds like.'

"And he was absolutely right!"

As a rock singer in Dublin, Mr. Wilkinson had no notion of Broadway or musicals. His mother forbade him to appear in "Superstar," and "didn't speak to me for six months" after he took the part of Judas.

Even after his star turn in London as Judas and in musicals like "Fire Angel," he kept returning to Dublin. "I missed home. London's a strange city. You want to be with your own, and Dublin's a very hospitable place," he said.

"Les Miz" took him not only back to London but also to the United States, and "Phantom" turned him into a Canadian. He, his wife, Deirdre, and three of their four children -- Judith, Simon and Sarah -- live in Toronto. His eldest son, Aaron, is a singer, guitarist and composer in Ireland.

"I'm very fortunate. I'm not diving for the phone anymore. I've made a little bit of money. I'm putting the kids through college. So I think I'm going to get back to a little bit of what I want to do myself, indulge myself. I love doing what I'm doing, but I'd [like] to get back to the early stuff, rekindle my youth."

'Music of the Night'

Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Sunday, matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Tickets: $19-$55

Call: (410) 494-2712

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