Monster love
The Phantom of the Opera
Through Feb. 14 at Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre, 401 W. Livingston St.

Andrew Lloyd Webber's mega-musical The Phantom of the Opera is the longest-running show in Broadway history, with more than 9,100 performances since 1986 and still counting. Between multiple international productions — including the ongoing original in London's West End and the shortened Phantom — The Las Vegas Spectacular version — and two decades worth of masked merchandising, the Phantom franchise has raked in a reported $5 billion worldwide. According to the show's press release, that makes it "the most `financially` successful piece of entertainment of all time, produced in any media."

I saw Phantom so often in its early years that it feels like an old T-shirt: a remnant of something you loved too deeply during high school to discard, but wouldn't wear publicly today. But the two Phantom virgins I attended this production with were engaged throughout, and even understood most of the plot (despite important ensemble numbers like "Prima Donna" being audibly incomprehensible). For other newbies, here's the story: Aspiring soprano Christine Daaé (Marni Raab) is understudying corpulent Carlotta (Kim Stengel), diva of the Paris Opera House circa 1880. Daaé's artistic ascension is owed to her anonymous "Angel of Music," an invisible vocal tutor who turns out to be the "Opera Ghost," a masked marauder who lives beneath the theater and extorts its anxious new owners (D.C. Anderson, Bruce Winant). When Christine's childhood playmate Raoul (Sean MacLaughlin) returns, romance blooms, sending the Phantom into a jealous snit that brings down the chandelier.

Compared to the sumptuous New York staging, the touring sets are noticeably shallower, but Maria Bjornson's rich fabric- centric designs are still dazzling. The supporting cast is consistently excellent, and the pit orchestra boasts more live players than most (ironic for a show that pioneered drum machines and lip-syncing on Broadway). Romantic leads Raab and MacLaughlin are both appealing, if a bit bland, and both were in fine voice (though aggressive amplification did Raab's sometimes-brittle high vibrato no favors).

As the Phantom, Tim Martin Gleason must compete with the ghost of originator Michael Crawford's iconic interpretation, and while a few flat notes kept him from that lofty standard, he's much better than Gerard Butler, who growled his way through the 2004 Joel Schumacher—directed film. However, Gleason's whiny, childish take on the character, though novel, robs him of power and turns the dramatic tension of the core romantic triangle into camp; I found myself laughing at the Phantom, something I doubt director Harold Prince intended.

One companion got eye-moisteningly emotional at the misunderstood monster's malaise. So even if it doesn't match my adolescent memories, something in the "music of the night" obviously still works.

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