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The Phantom of the Opera (1990)

     by Bruce Falstein, Lawrence Rosen, and

     Paul Schierhorn

          starring David Staller, Elizabeth Walsh & Christopher Rath

This is a strange one to try to review. It's a stage musical written for the Hirschfield Theatre in Florida, but no cast recording was ever released; instead, it's available as a DVD, which is a recording of a live performance in front of a live audience. Of course, theatrical productions and movies are very different, so despite the efforts of director Darwin Knight to spice things up a bit, it doesn't really have much going for it in a film context. It was a hard beastie to try to analyze in this weird polyglot format, but I muddled on through to the end anyway.


The first thing I noticed was that the quote on the back of the DVD case claimed proudly that Variety magazine was quoted as saying that this was "more challenging and complex than the Weber [sic] version". This did not bode well. I can understand that pretty much any stage adaptation is going to have to deal with the looming shadow of Lloyd Webber's incredibly popular show, but if the production team isn't even spelling his name right, I'm not sure if I can attach much credence to their claims. I need bumper stickers to pass out. Copy-Editing: It's Not Optional.


I wasn't really sure how to break this down: not by songs like a cast recording, since there was quite a bit of non-musical action, but I also wanted to avoid doing a large, smeary morass like my movie reviews usually turn out to be. Stage shows are generally a little more structured. I finally ended up breaking it down by scene the same way they did for the DVD menus, so each scene includes both some dialogue and a musical number.


Prologue: Spirit of Music


The cover copy claims that this is a "stately dream ballet", but that appears to be a well-intentioned untruth. Before anyone gets cranky about my lack of expert status here, I'll own up: I am a ballet dunce. I really just don't "get" ballet most of the time. I can enjoy it as an art form and I sure think those dancers up there are super duper pretty, but when it comes to which arch of the neck is meant to convey fiery burning passion and which is supposed to mean the endless heartbreak of a thousand shattered love affairs, I'm totally lost. (In case anyone was wondering, that's why I haven't been brave enough to review a ballet interpretation of the Phantom story yet - my notes would all look like "blah blah blah use of cellos blah blah blah contrapuntal dissonance blah blah blah Romantic tone pattern influences blah blah blah oh, and the dancers look very pretty in their leotards.")


Now, all that said, I don't think this is a stately anything. It's barely a ballet, at least as I understand ballet; there's some pointing and some twirling and a few hops, yeah, but it seems to be mostly a lot of waving of the arms in semi-dramatic poses, which looks sort of unfortunate on stage and completely unfortunate on film. The purpose of this bizarre little prequel is to show us Christine's pre-existing relationship with Raoul, from the childhood scarf-rescuing episode. Unfortunately, it doesn't come off very well overall; what's intended to be dreamily surreal is instead befuddlingly incomprehensible, and the voiceovers that are provided so that the dancers don't have to speak are almost hysterical in their badness. Voiceovers are a tough thing to do, and I respect that, but the fact is that not everybody can be a voice actor. These people may be able to do wonderful things when their bodies are involved as well, but their voices alone made me indecisive about which flavor of sigh to use while waiting for it to end.


The intended backstory doesn't really come through, either, obscured as it is by the insistence on a dream-like presentation that isn't really working. Like many other things that will come up later in the show, much of understanding what's going on seems to hinge on the assumption that the audience has read Leroux's novel, which at this point is not a safe assumption at all (as I've noted before, many people just aren't up on their classic French literature, especially in the USA). For example, there's a lengthy lullabye-like song about the "Spirit of Music", sung (apparently... it's hard to tell with all the voiceovers) by a portly old guy who is standing in the mist playing a violin. Of course, I saw the violin and realized that this was meant to be Christine's father, but not until halfway through the song (at which point the repetition of the lyric "my child" suddenly made sense). Had I not read the book, I would have had no idea who that man was, what he was doing there, or why he did not reappear after the ballet. I might have figured it out later, when Christine is warbling on about her father, but it'd be a crapshoot.


And there's also the little fact that the titling tells us that the year is 1901. Say what, now? Anyone want to explain to me why we've suddenly set the story 20 years in the future? No one wants to explain this to me until we get into the story proper later, at which point it will kind of make sense, but not really.


Scene One: Spirit of Music (Part 2)


I was already filled with dread by the frankly awful singing voice of the underaged Christine in the prologue, but was mercifully rescued by adult Christine's lovely voice. Elizabeth Walsh is obviously a well-trained classical vocalist, and her ability was one of the major things that saved this show from being administered a greater beating than it's actually getting. My feeling overall for this show is that it has an excellent cast who have very little to work with in terms of dialogue and range, and are stuck making the best of a mediocre piece. Elizabeth Walsh's voice is lovely - but that's all I can really tell you about it, because the truth is that I've already forgotten most of the things she sang due to their unmemorable and overall ho-hum musicality. It's not her fault; she'd have sounded beautiful singing nursery rhymes, but unfortunately she might as well have been for all the impact the text or arrangements had on me.


Speaking of having little to work with, welcome to the plot. This show is a drastically shortened and cut down version of the story, and the result is a lot of patently ridiculous plot holes that are more distracting than streamlining. The Phantom just suddenly shows up (vocally) in Christine's dressing room one night and starts correcting her technique; when she understandably wants to know who the disembodied voice giving her orders is, he jumps right into his whole "And lo, I will mold you and make of you the most heavenly of singers, and the world will rejoice at your presence, and we can also maybe have sex" spiel. Bafflingly, Christine is all good with this and just sort of shrugs her shoulders and goes on singing for her mysterious peeping tom. A small attempt is made at passing it off as belief in her father's "Spirit of Music", but it feels tacked-on and barely relevant (and if you haven't read Leroux's novel and you didn't get the bizarrely obfuscated allusions to her father in the prologue, you're shit out of luck as far as having any idea what she's talking about goes.)


Then, to compound the weirdness, a shrewish-looking old woman in funereal clothes (seriously, do you remember the wicked stepmother in Disney's animated version of Cinderella? She looks like that, exactly) arrives to pronounce that she always knew this would happen and it looks like "he" has chosen Christine and oh dear child we're so happy for you, and the audience is staring at the stage with the resounding silence of incomprehension. It turns out that the funereal woman is meant to be Madame Giry, though since all the characters apparently already know her, we never get introduced. Why is she harassing Christine in the middle of the night and why does she have any knowledge of the Phantom? Nobody knows. It's a mystery.


It seems pretty clear that Rosen and Schierhorn borrowed heavily from Lloyd Webber's stage version for her character, since she bears little resemblance to Leroux's frowsy boxkeeper; like Lloyd Webber's version of the character, she's the teacher slash chaperone of the corps de ballet (having absorbed La Sorelli's role from Leroux's novel) and generally knows way more about the Phantom than anybody else does. Unlike in Lloyd Webber's version, however, no one ever explains why she knows these things, so we are left to make our assumptions as we can (I actually have a good one near the end of this review). She also teaches ballet in her Evil Governess costume, with a cane, because... that makes a lot of sense, sure.


The duet song, "Spirit of Music", is lovely, despite all these bewildering distractions. David Staller also has a beautiful voice, so despite the fact that I had little to no idea what was going on, I was able to coast along happily for a few minutes while they were singing. I liked the orchestration (when I could; there was a lot of synth abuse, but in smaller shows like this that can't be avoided, so I tried to be tolerant), particularly in this song; gentle violins and an comforting, lullabye-like sway made the song reminiscent of Christine's father, which was a good musical cue to have considering all the confusion surrounding said patriarch. I found it very interesting that they had chosen to go for "spirit" instead of "angel"; it's possible that this was mostly to avoid copyright conflicts with Lloyd Webber's version, but I cherish a very tiny hope that someone involved in the creative process saw the 1987 animated film and borrowed that little quirk from it. Or, like said film, maybe they just wanted to avoid any religious overtones annoying potentially devout and/or atheistic audience members.


It should also be noted that the Phantom is wearing a white half mask, which is purely Lloyd Webber's invention. Sure, it's easier to sing in onstage, but it's not a necessity - Charles Dance's mask from the 1990 film, for example, is perfectly apt for singing as well. Lloyd Webber's was the very first Phantom to have a disfigurement on only half of his face, so there's very little argument that this is directly borrowed from that previous stage show.


Scene Two: Running the Show


Then there was another subtitle telling us that it was 10 years later, and I had a tantrum. Ten YEARS? From WHAT? If it's ten years from the Phantom taking over Christine's tutelage, that's very odd considering that she seems to be behaving as if he popped up last night. I think they meant to put this title earlier, and have Christine's dressing room visits be ten years after the ballet at the beginning, but... seriously. Why is the subtitle in the wrong place, chronologically? Was anyone still too unconfused and in need of being taken down a peg?


And let's talk about why the show is now set in 1911. I assume this is because Leroux's novel was published in 1911, but... what? Why? Even if you're trying for some kind of historic accuracy, wouldn't you either use something close to 1881 (the probable date from the story) or at least 1910, when the story was actually written (it was written and published as a newspaper serial in 1910, and only released as a novel in 1911)? I don't understand the reasoning here. If anyone has a more in-depth understanding, hit me with it, because my brain is sore and would welcome collaboration. It seems like the barest bones of research was done here, and then everyone wandered off and wrote a play and felt very proud of themselves.


But, okay, sure, fine. We move on to the actual scene, which is rehearsal for the ballet chorus and stage-setting for the stagehands. The ballet music is appropriately sprightly and excitable, with bird-like string flutters and flutes. Madame Giry is here in her Widow Goes to Tea dress, directing the ballet girls with her cane in a scene that seems borrowed directly from Lloyd Webber's musical. The Phantom is also present; he seems to enjoy panicking the ballet girls for no apparent reason, which I think is meant to make him look playful. Of course, said playfulness also serves the dual purpose of reminding everyone in the opera house of his presence and power. The ballet girls sing an entertaining, chatty little gossip song in which they swap ghost stories about the Phantom; most of their descriptions seem to be those used in Leroux's novel, though they verge off into the ridiculous over time (and, of course, they're mostly inaccurate since the Phantom can only be so deformed in a stage performance). The instrumentation is choppy and shrill, which gets the feeling of agitation across nicely, but the chorus... the chorus hurts. They are offensive to the ear, which is probably not their fault so much as it is the fault of the poor sound acoustics for the video recording.


There's also a small, somewhat timid gentleman prowling about, asking people nosy questions and generally being a very polite bother in his little brown hat. I could not figure out who he was supposed to be until much later. Turns out he's the daroga, who is in a stunning turn of events even more of a deus ex machina in this version than he was in Leroux's original. He's also much more confusing (granted, the daroga is supposed to be mysterious, but there's a line between mysterious and totally baffling that should not be crossed); like many other elements of the story, he isn't properly introduced until halfway through it, has only a very peripheral role to play, and then makes a meager attempt to justify his presence in the story at the end (which is not particularly successful). However, it's interesting to see him here at all - again, there are elements that show that the author-composers did indeed delve into Leroux's novel some - since he has been conspicuously absent in most versions of the story. It's somewhat strange to have him here in juxtaposition with this very Lloyd Webber-influenced Giry, since Lloyd Webber's version of Giry fulfills many of the daroga's roles in lieu of his presence in that version.  In light of this, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense for Giry to know so damn much about the Phantom, but making sense appears to be a rare commodity in this show, and there may not have been enough of it to go around.


Carlotta arrives here as well, and I have to say that I do love her characterization in this piece. Most of the time, Carlotta is either a cardboard damsel in distress (as in the 1925 and 1943 films) or a cardboard antagonist provided to give Christine some adversity to overcome (as in the 1986 Lloyd Webber musical or the 1990 television film), but she's given a little more depth in this version, which I appreciated. She's hardly a central character in Leroux's original novel, but I'm always in favor of a really clever re-envisioning of a character, and Carlotta is very well-done here.


That said, when Carlotta is wufting about whining about how her famous high C might not be doing very well, I was unimpressed. The roles that Carlotta sings in Leroux's novel aren't exactly heavy dramatic roles, and I expected her to have a lighter, higher range; I know some fabulous mezzo-sopranos who have a nice C5, so it takes more than that to impress me. Add to that the fact that Carlotta busts out with the Queen of the Night's famous aria from Die Zauberflöte later on in the show, which goes a full fifth above that, and I was fairly convinced that Rosen and Schierhorn were just throwing out operatic-sounding things for her to say without paying much attention to the specifics.


Then the ballet chorus comes back to reprise their ear-bending little song, and I was sad. I think it's a clever little piece, and I'd love to hear it done by a really good chorus (or, at least, a chorus with better acoustics and recording equipment at their disposal).


Scene Three: Light & Darkness


Now, we digress into campy stage humor territory. Not that there's anything wrong with that, generally, but this is just so... mundane. I just praised Rosen & Schierhorn for their decision to give Carlotta a little more character; I also enjoy the fact that they've returned to Leroux's original characters somewhat for the managers, Moncharmin and Richard. While it's nice to see them have actual personalities, and to enjoy those personalities' reactions to the pranking and demands of the Phantom, it's somewhat disconcerting to watch them have this incredible divariffic spat in the middle of the show. There's the added difficulty, also, of the sound continuing to suck so that it's difficult to hear exactly what they're saying at times. It's still pretty fun to hear the ventriloquism of the original novel used convincingly in a stage setting; it's a hard thing to portray onstage, but the use of the two-way portrait is fairly ingenious, and I enjoyed the humor of the Phantom's shenanigans even while I acknowledged that it was all a wee bit trite. The Phantom really saves the scene for me, because I found most of the interaction between the managers unbelievable and tiring, and the wildly anachronistic language being used in the lyrics made my head hurt in context.


All of which is too bad, because the music is really pretty fun in a vaudeville sort of a way, and I wouldn't have had the slightest problem enjoying it in a different show, like a Mel Brooks production. But as a period piece, even jumped forward to 1911... it wasn't quite working.


Scene Four: An Able Woman


The flip-flop that the staging pulls on us here is one of the few inventive things that I really enjoyed in this show. The audience is, effectively, put backstage, while the backdrop is painted to look like an audience; not only does this allow the actual audience to see what's going on backstage, which is generally more interesting that what you'd be seeing from the normal view, but it has a very cool mirroring effect on the audience as well, allowing them to feel that they are more involved in the show than an audience typically is (after all, THAT'S the audience, over there, right?).


Another thing that this stage show does that I appreciate is to use real opera arias, mostly those mentioned in Leroux's novel, rather than writing new ones (as in Lloyd Webber's version) or re-lyricizing said operas (as in Hill's version). Now, granted, the arias have been translated into English to avoid total boredom on the part of a pretty much exclusively English-speaking audience, and I generally hate English-translated operas (the only one I ever saw that didn't seem utterly ridiculous was The Magic Flute in English, and, well... that one's supposed to be pretty ridiculous, so that's probably what saved it), but even so it was a well-thought-out and applied idea. Carlotta here is singing "The Jewel Song" from Gounod's Faust, which is one of the showpiece soprano arias of the time period and one which is used extensively in Leroux's novel. This Carlotta has an excellent voice, and even though she's intentionally letting a few of the seams show, I found myself getting just as annoyed as her audience by the constant interruptions to her singing.


Interestingly, the Phantom attempts to use the hapless Buquet (who, as he is in the 1989 film, is something of a drunk) to do his dirty work and sabotage Carlotta, which is quite a change from the solitary genius of Leroux's novel (and most other previous versions) who doesn't need anyone's help to get things accomplished. The attempt to use Buquet in this manner reminds me of the film henchmen (Ivan in the 1962 Fisher/Lom film and Lajos in the 1983 Markowitz/Schell film) that were occasionally used in order to make the Phantom more sympathetic by keeping his hands free of blood, though there's no further evidence that either had a significant influence on this stage show. Buquet, who while he may be a drunk is still not foolish enough to want to hang out with this guy, refuses and runs off screaming, which is the last straw for the beleaguered Carlotta.


So Christine gets dragged on to do her aria, and she's a hit (really, Walsh's voice is stunning), and Raoul sees and recognizes her and it's the usual instant return of childhood love for both of them. Confusingly, Christine and Raoul start to sing a duet, the exact purpose of which I still have yet to discover. At first, I assumed it was metaphorical - e.g., Raoul was singing to let us as the audience know his feelings and to show the reconnection between him and Christine. But then the Phantom seemed to be able to hear him and was making mopey faces on the other side of the stage, so then it seemed like he was literally singing, which made NO sense at all (the audience would be pissed off, not to mention the fact that one wouldn't expect the vicomte to really have that much singing training). So then I thought, well, maybe the Phantom is just doing his pseudo-psychic thing; maybe he's overcome with emotion from Christine's performance, or maybe he can see Raoul's facial reaction even if there's no literal singing going on. Then, later, Raoul mentions that he stood up for all of Christine's performance, which I had assumed was part of the metaphorical conceit. So, to recap, he... stood up in the middle of the performance... and stood there the whole time... but didn't sing? Ooookay, then.


Then there's a horrible sound at the end of the song (after the fact, I hypothesize that it was meant to be some low-register sound from the synthesizer that wasn't rendered very well by the substandard speakers, but seriously, it was awful. I thought the theatre was being visited by the Awful Din) and Christine faints dramatically, a la her original debut in Leroux's book.


Carlotta finally sings the song "An Able Woman" here, but I'll forgive its tardiness because it's so wonderful. Not only is Beth McVey's voice gorgeous, but the song itself, which is Carlotta's lament that she's being pushed aside for a younger, prettier model despite the fact that she still has the talent, experience and pipes to keep on singing, is a tear-jerker. Far from being a cipher as she is in the original novel or a spiteful has-been as she is in many interpretations, this Carlotta is a sympathetic character, one who knows that her career will soon be drawing to a close and that she will have to deal with the harsh reality of being forgotten in favor of a new face. When, at the close of her song, she tearfully declares, "I may be succeeded, but I will never be replaced!", we feel for her plight and forgive her abrasive behavior, since we are now privy to her insecurities and the knowledge of her eventual professional doom (and, if we happen to already know the Phantom story, there's the added dimension of being aware that her career will be winding to a close sooner rather than later). This unexpected sympathy for Carlotta also has the added effect of making the Phantom more villainous because of his persecution of her, which is a nice touch.


Scene Five: Perfect Music, Perfect Love


Madame Giry returns to nursemaid Christine when she wakes up from her faint, and none of our questions are answered when Christine explains to Raoul that Giry is "a very dear friend". Okay, if you say so. It is interesting that Giry takes on the mother role in this version for Christine (it should be noted that Meg is totally absent from this production, though there's some speculation that the ballerina at the very end may be intended to be her); the original Giry was the only mother figure in Leroux's novel, but the other characters were left motherless by design there. It's Lloyd Webber's version of Madame Giry that becomes a de facto mother to the entire opera house (or at least to Christine and the ballet corps), and, as most other evidence indicates, this too suggests that this is basically a direct import of Lloyd Webber's vision of Madame Giry. Her attempts to stonewall Raoul from seeing Christine, however, do give her a little bit of that original boxkeeper role, if we assume that Christine can be equated with the Phantom's box (since Giry considers her his property).


The daroga is confusingly characterized, being both much more sociable and active than the inscrutable character of Leroux's novel, and also much less of a commanding, intelligent presence, being more of a beetling, timid little dude most of the time. He doesn't really seem to have much to recommend him as a police officer, honestly, though he'd make a fabulous Watson to some enterprising Holmes.


The Phantom does his first kidnapping thing, and Christine is all wtf and it's about as you'd expect, until the Phantom gets to his little monologue about himself (he's quite ego-centric). This particular Phantom has a very singular purpose, and that is to be a representation of passion. While Leroux's Erik certainly represents that, this Phantom is Passion and nothing else (he doesn't, for example, represent much in the way of sexuality, fatherhood, change, growth, or the unfairly-censured lower echelons of society). It's made clear several times over the course of the show (all of his vocal teaching with Christine is based exclusively upon getting her to put more passion into her delivery, not upon vocal technique at all, etc.) that passion, and the fostering of that passion, is the Phantom's greatest love and goal. His exhortations to Christine here make that blatantly obvious, almost to the point of "okay, I get it, thank you, go on, please", but it does pose the interesting question: if the Phantom represents unbridled artistic passion, will that turn out to be his redeeming quality or his downfall? Certainly he's a much, much happier guy in this version than in most, including Leroux's original, because he has this motivating passion to sustain him (doesn't leave much time to angst over how no one loves him).


The title song for this scene, "Perfect Music, Perfect Love", is the Phantom's big number and without a doubt the most impressive song of the entire score. There's plenty of irony here, most notably in the Phantom's assertions that the world above is insane and ugly, which highlight the fact that he seems to be deluding himself into believing that he lives alone by choice (in order to avoid the ignorant, passionless, artistically inept plebes, no doubt). The song has an arresting melody and a memorable scheme, with appropriate instrumentation where necessary - flutes and violins when the Phantom's pleading for Christine's love, sudden shift to drums and agitated synth noises when he becomes agitated, etc. - and Staller's voice is expressive and dramatic. The choreography is just this side of side-splittingly hilarious, but I can't really blame the performer for that. The lyrics of the song, as you can see even from the title, equate music and musical perfection to love; it's an interesting dilution, since Leroux's novel equated music with sexuality (i.e., the act of creation). I suppose "Perfect Music, Perfect Sex" would have had a much smaller target demographic (though many lyrics in here, such as "I'll always be your fulfillment", seem to be sexually oriented anyway).


I got very excited when I heard the following lyrical line: "I saw your skull through the mirror, and I saw that we're the same." I wrote this long, involved paragraph about how the horror of the Phantom's face comes from our horror of mortality and the realization that we, too, are prey to it, but then about halfway through the remaining song time I realized that he'd said "soul", not "skull". Alas. My hopes were dashed. Back to the passion metaphor.


Limited as it is, Staller is nevertheless incredible in this role. I believe in his version of the character even with the ridiculous choreography and the stilted lines and the general unremarkableness that permeates this show. In particular, he does an excellent job of flipping back and forth between the genius-fueled ranting and the supplication of a desperate lover, giving the character a lot of depth that frankly isn't written into his role very well. All of that said, however, a lot of this scene annoyed me. The Phantom's declaration that he would go to the masked ball with Christine made me think of a prom date, and he did way, way too much explaining to Christine about his deformity; this Phantom is extremely extroverted in order to serve as a convincing representation of Passion, but that very extroverted behavior is confusing and galling in light of his many pains to remain undiscovered and his generally secretive lifestyle up to this point.


And, by the way, if I can talk about said lifestyle... what is it, exactly? Because his underground bachelor pad is set up like he's been there forever, and his dialogue bears this out, but while the corps de ballet gossips about him, he clearly hasn't been involved in the opera house to date at all. The managers are quite surprised to find that he's suddenly demanding money and show substitutions, and Madame Giry's lines seem to indicate that he hasn't bothered anyone in a very long time. The original Phantom story had catalysts to spur all this action; the managers were replaced and the tendency of the new managers toward being difficult, combined with the sudden need to foster Christine's career and love, were the factors that led most directly to all the opera house debacles and the Phantom's eventual downfall. Everything just sort of suddenly happens in this version, with no apparent spur, and that's very bothersome to me. I want to know why, dammit. Good writers of anything, be it a novel, play, or film, should make sure their audience isn't crying from lack of explicated whys.


The Phantom's new role as representative of passion, and the changed dynamic that brings to his relationship with Christine (i.e., that he is concerned mostly with her indulging her passions, especially her musical passions, rather than with trying to get her to love him and thus save him from his solitary estrangement from mankind), gives rise to a very different reaction to her inevitable unmasking of him. He's not particularly incensed or violent; rather, he is disappointed in Christine for having so small a breadth of mind, for turning out to be "just like all the others". By the way, I love the Phantom's disfigurement in this version; despite being very Lloyd Webber-inspired in its half-face size, it's very deathly and hideous.


Then we head off to the masked ball - mostly set to Saint-Saens' timeless Danse Macabre - where I spend some time trying to figure out what the hell the Phantom's mask is supposed to be (is it a dragon? is it a demon? is it a bear? someone, help me!) and everybody picks on Carlotta some more. The Phantom offers Carlotta a drink with a poisoned element so that her singing is affected, a move that was used by Carlotta herself in the 1990 Richardson/Dance film. It causes her to have vocal problems that manifest as a sudden, abrupt descent into a male vocal register without warning as she's singing. Of course, this is totally physically impossible, even without the precision with which she's still hitting the notes in their new octaves; it's pandering to the crowd for comedic effect, and it is fairly humorous to hear parts of the Queen of the Night's aria suddenly popping in and out of the soprano register. Personally, I would have preferred that Rosen & Schierhorn had used the Phantom's ventriloquism from the original novel, since that's literally what's going on (Staller is singing the lower registers for McVey, making it a duet). The Phantom's passionate sexuality is present here in that Carlotta crushes on him a bit, and he catches her in a very steamy-looking embrace when she faints.


Buquet also turns up dead here, with an axe sticking out of his back, causing me to recall the deeply subtle axe combat from Phantom of the Mall and get all snickery (more likely, this is actually borrowed from the 1983 Markowitz/Schell film again, in which the Phantom kills  the traitorous claqueuer with an axe - not exactly a subtle moment in that film, either).


Scene Six: Something Out There


Raoul and Christine flee to the roof for their little heart to heart, and Raoul makes his role from the novel blindingly obvious with various statements. He actually says outright that he will love her without demands, unlike her audience (and, of course, the Phantom), even if she decides never to give him her regard in return. It's clear that Rosen & Schierhorn certainly understood Raoul's appeal in Leroux's novel and passed it on here, giving him such telling lines as, "I would never ask for anything from you... but [your love] would be a gift from Heaven itself." He's very much the gentle, sexless Gothic love interest here, representing safety and love without obligations or frightening sexuality. In fact, we're practically beaten over the head with it - he actually uses the fact that others will demand things from her as a negative in order to recommend himself in their little love duet.


Christine digresses into her own separate little song about how much she loves the Phantom and how strong his hold over her is, which is both confusing (when did she have time to get so attached? Personally, with only the experiences here to go on, I'd be petrified) and somewhat hilarious since Raoul goes right on smiling and declaring his endless love and devotion to her without a hint of jealousy. That's an odd choice here, that Raoul is never in the slightest bit jealous of Christine, and an obvious change from the original novel; this Raoul is not intended to show elements of immaturity or childishness because those aren't particularly sympathetic to a modern audience looking for a suave, debonair hero, so they are omitted. On the flip side of the coin, I don't understand why the Phantom, who is listening in, is reaching such heights of crankiness himself - she's stomping all over Raoul to talk about how much she cares about the Phantom, and all said masked jerkface can do is get upset over it. Men.


Then, in a sudden and bizarre twist, the Phantom abducts Christine right off the roof and absconds below with her, leaving Raoul to scuttle about and cobble together a rescue attempt as he can. It's interesting that there is no chandelier drop in this version; I'd draw a parallel from the 1989 Little/Englund film, which also omitted the chandelier, but in this case I think it's just a matter of the smaller production not being able to handle a dramatic chandelier falling from the sky (Hill's adaptation had a similar problem, but they solved it quite gracefully, rather than simply ignoring it as is done here).


Then, poof! Sudden cut to the daroga intercepting Raoul and their pursuit of the Phantom! Somehow the daroga knows a lot of things, even though earlier he didn't. The pacing is ridiculously breakneck in this last part of the act. I almost got whiplash. This scene with the two of them lasts, oh... five nanoseconds. Then back to the Phantom and Christine. The most interesting part of this final scene between them, for me, was the Phantom's obvious ability to equate Christine with heavenly redemption but his inability to fully grasp that as a concept that he should be aspiring to. His abrupt leap from begging her to stay to begging her to take him with her show an almost childish confusion: he's aware that he wants and needs her, but he isn't entirely certain why.


The final showdown between Raoul and the Phantom isn't much of a showdown; it's pretty much just the Phantom snootily informing Raoul that Christine can leave any time she feels like it, and then his being astonished when she chooses to actually do that. It makes the Phantom a much more sympathetic character that he allows her simply to not choose him - no force is involved whatsoever, and only minimal begging. This does, however, weaken his character and reduce the scene to a somewhat less interesting level than it might otherwise have attained. The best lines come after Raoul and Christine depart, when the Phantom remarks derisively to the daroga that the upper world "is terrified of genuine passion." The daroga, after busting out a little sword and making me laugh hysterically (remember the Persian's swordfight from Bischoff's 1976 book? Hilarious!), vows to catch the Phantom one day, while his opposite number vows never to be caught and they take off in separate directions, leaving us with the intentionally ambiguous ending for the Phantom. One of his final lines is the most spot-on encapsulation of what the entire show has been trying to get across: "True passion must, by its nature, lead to true insanity." It's only one of the plethora of themes in Leroux's work, but it's the main point of this spin-off.


Scene Seven: Back Into the Darkness


There's a wee little scene between Raoul and Christine, mostly reaffirming their love and giving us a good idea of their steady, orderly kind of relationship. We're pretty bored, since with the Phantom's departure there is no longer any conflict. Mercifully, this part is short.


Then, finally, a lone ballerina is at practice when a strange voice starts to hound her and give her dancing tips. Yes, this is what you think it is: Phantom Stalking, round two (Christine didn't work out. Let's try that again). This final scene sets him up as a sort of eternal, dangerous muse, representative of excess and uncontrolled passion. Redemption? Ha ha. No, none for you. His final line, "I am whatever you want me to be!", accompanied by maniacal laughter to the sky, makes it clear that he's being used in a representational context, not a literal one.


It also gives me my Giry theory - maybe Madame Giry knows all this stuff because she's Christine Mk. I, the Phantom's previous effort! Yeah, it's thin. But it's all I've got to hope for as far as the mysterious Madame is concerned. Something in this show needs to give me hope.


I want to stress that the music in this show isn't bad. Not at all. It just isn't impressively good, either, and while I could probably put the soundtrack on (if they had released a soundtrack, that is) and listen to it in perfect contentment for quite a while, it would never be the first thing I reached for.


We should also note that, like Lloyd Webber's Phantom, this version of the famous masked man is never named. While it's quite true that this enhances his role as the living personification of the concept of passion (after all, that doesn't really need anything as earthly and limiting as a name attached to it), it still betrays quite a lot of influence from Lloyd Webber's version, which seems above all to have been the most borrowed from for this stage adaptation (ironic, since it continually insists that it's more challenging and faithful to Leroux's novel than the Lloyd Webber version).


The bottom line is that while nothing is heart-rendingly bad here, nothing is very good, either, and a lot of it is on the shady, icky side of mediocrity. The strength of the performers is pretty much the only thing that keeps this show from descending into D territory.

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