by: David Patrick Stearns

Date: 1988
New York – In the end, the phantom saves the opera.

The music, writing stage spectacle and acting all have their ups and downs in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s $8million Phantom of the Opera, which opened Tuesday at the Majestic Theater. But what keeps this wobbly blockbuster from collapsing under its own grandeur is Michael Crawford.

His characterization of the disfigured phantom terrorizing a Paris opera house galvanizes the show into great theater – for the last 20 minutes. Only then does Phantom of the Opera live up to its staggering hype, which no work of art should have to withstand.

In fact, the show’s aims are relatively modest. It’s basically a bodice-ripping love story, a notch or two above a gothic novel. But for all of its grand gestures, it lacks the scope of Les Miserables. For all of its fevered passion, it lacks the emotional depth of Into the Woods.

The show puts machinery first and flesh-and-blood second. Maria Bjornson’s sumptuous set designs are the work of genius, creating a candlelit, underground lagoon and a chandelier that tumbles (fitfully and unconvincingly) from the theater ceiling to the stage. But as skillfully as director Harold Prince uses the sets, the wizardry distracts from the story it’s supposed to tell – and swallows the actors..

It’s almost as if this is a live MTV video without the camera’s selective eye to keep the audience from missing the forest for the trees.

Nonetheless, Sarah Brightman (Mrs. Lloyd Webber) makes an angelic but monochromatic impression with her spring water-clear soprano. But most of the other actors, even romantic lead Steve Barton who, like Brightman and Crawford, is from the London cast – seem like well-dressed comic book characters. And the hyper-romantic score doesn’t always help.

All I Ask of You, Masquerade, and The Point of No Return have great melodies, but Lloyd Webber doesn’t develop them in ways that flesh out characters or dramatize scenes, and often recycles them until they become tiresome. Lloyd Webber also delivers some dryly-comic moments while parodying the grander French Opera composers, but maybe he could take a lesson from them.

Much of this doesn’t matter when Crawford is onstage. Though performing behind a mask, he projects a beguiling combination of danger, eroticism and anguish. The show’s most powerful moment is when the soprano he has abducted overcomes her revulsion and delivers a passionate but heartbreaking kiss - heartbreaking because you know it’s probably his first, and, with an angry mob after him, his last.

That’s real theater, and Phantom needs more.