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'Phantom's' appeal a thing of mystery

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"The Phantom of the Opera"

8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Sept. 25. $17-$62. Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 404-817-8700.

The verdict: "Why, why?"

The only thing more preposterous than a disfigured man seizing control of the Paris Opera is the idea of the chandelier as flying saucer.

In the opening scene of "The Phantom of the Opera," the '80s mega-musical based on Gaston Leroux's tingly horror tale of 1910, the monumental light fixture sputters and blinks like a crystal spaceship from the Victorian Age. Possessed by some strange demonic force --- actually it's just an expensive hydraulic lift --- it hovers ominously over the audience, then glides into the rafters like a proper chandelier, waiting for its big number.

And what a calamitous trick it is.

Barring divine intervention, the 17-year-old Cameron Mackintosh spectacle with music by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber will become Broadway's longest-running show in January, surpassing "Cats." Meanwhile, the U.S. tour makes its fifth stop at the Fox Theatre through Sept. 25, and whatever you think of its moldy Gothic plot or its insipid songs, you'll have to concur that its opulent swags and gilded cherubs look swell in the historic movie palace.

When the Phantom (Gary Mauer) and Christine (Marie Danvers) float into his shimmering underground chamber, when the opera scenes irreverently mock the elephantine trappings of the genre, you see why patrons are willing to shell out $20 bills for a penny dreadful.

Fringed and tasseled to within an inch of its life, Maria Bjornson's production design remains astonishingly beautiful. And even today, director Harold Prince's opening sequence feels revolutionary. There's no music, no overture, but instead a kind of quiet prelude: As some old opera house relics are auctioned off, the organ starts its gush of heart-fluttering somersaults, and the legend of the phantom begins to unfold in flashback form.

As a sendup of the backstabbing tactics of the stage world, "Phantom" has some genuinely funny moments of backstage farce. Kim Stengal makes a wonderful fur-flinging diva as Christine's archrival Carlotta Guidicelli, and John Whitney is good as Carlotta's portly leading man, Ubaldo Piangi.

With her gorgeous soprano voice and Lillian Gish hair and posture, Danvers makes a lovely Christine, even if her paramour Raoul (Michael Shawn Lewis) has all the sex appeal of a stocky Conan O'Brien.

But Mauer's account of the Phantom goes beyond pathos, at times, to resemble the whimpering of a wounded animal. In his neediest moments, the Phantom comes across as unnecessarily grotesque, and what we feel is more like revulsion than sympathy.

Nor does it help that he has to utter lyrics like "I am your angel of music; come to the angel of music." Or that the Phantom and Christine are stuck with a title duet about the heinous creature who resides inside her mind. "The Music of the Night," "The Point of No Return": it's all repetitive, synthesizer-driven dreck.

A dark love story that echoes "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," "Phantom" tries to masquerade as a Freudian web of bondage, desire and deliverance. Instead, it's a festering agglomeration of false emotion and excessive sentimentality that comes off as laughable.

Why "The Phantom of the Opera" has slowly, gently, not-so-secretly possessed its public all these years remains a mystery to many. Maybe one day that flying saucer-chandelier will levitate to the point of no return.

Copyright 2005 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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