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Monday, July 21, 2008| As a theatergoer, I’ve been waiting more than 20 years to see “The Phantom of the Opera.” Andrew Lloyd Webber’s international musical phenomenon that spawned countless fans and shattered box office revenue records opened in San Diego last week.

As a fan, I waited with bated breath for the music to start. As a reviewer, I reminded myself to view the performers on their own merits, rather than those of the stellar original cast (whose voices will echo in eternity on the original cast recording.)

The story, based on the novel by Gaston Leroux, follows the beautiful singer Christine Daaé who becomes the obsession of the “phantom” of the opera house. The phantom, spurred on by his obsession for Christine, wreaks havoc on the opera house (particularly the resident star-singers, the soprano diva and her slovenly tenor husband) as he pressures the directors to give Christine the starring role of an opera of his own composition.

The dark, opening-act set with its giant, ominous-looking figures sheathed in fabric gave no inkling of what was yet to come. Phantom began with a rather conventional scene at an auction; just measured enough for the audience to settle unsuspectingly into their seats. That is to say, until a scene with a giant chandelier got everyone’s attention and launched “Phantom” off with a delicious fright.

It’s true that “Phantom’s” lavish staging and sumptuous costuming is the prime mover of the show. Every few minutes backdrops dissolve to reveal astonishing panoramas: lakes with floating candles, the ornate, gilded opera-house or scaffolds and bridges that move as the actors traverse them.

Stylized, enduring music remains lyrical and features fleshed-out orchestrations that closely resemble other Webber works — most notably the synth-sounds of “Starlight Express.” Of course the strong singing and a haunting story add to the overall aesthetic.

However, none of this phantasmagoric splendor would work without a stellar cast; thank goodness this U.S. tour boasted some excellent singers.

Richard Todd Adams’ turn as the hypnotic Phantom exceeded my expectations. Never faltering, his rich, textured voice soared to the balconies. Adams’ incarnation of the Phantom’s manic, tortured, multi-faceted persona electrified the stage and captivated the audience. No matter that there was little room for compassion for Adams’ crazed Phantom; he truly thrilled.

Marni Raab delicately, convincingly portrayed the lovely, haunted Christine. Beautifully assured with her sweet and clear voice, she effectively depicted a woman in a trance-like state, captivated by the phantom.

As Christine’s suitor, Raoul, Greg Mills embodied romance, heroism and strength. Mills oozed virility and emotion with his exceptional voice.

Nancy Hess was perfection as the mysterious Madame Giry; austere yet somehow sympathetic. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. The opera diva, Carlotta, played by Kim Stengel commanded the stage with her prominent legato and ample comedic prowess. Jesse Ehrlich was delightfully memorable as Christine’s friend and ballet dancer Meg.

Favorite numbers, “Music of the Night” and “All I Ask of You” were passionately performed and sounded great. The second act opener, “Masquerade,” sparkled with intensity from the entire company. My only complaint with the show was that I wished there were subtitles for the scenes in the managers’ (D.C. Anderson and Bruce Winant, both solid and entertaining in their roles) office. It was very difficult to understand the lyrics, though I think that was simply a problem with the song, not the singers. I must say, the costumes were the best I’ve ever seen in a touring production; simply exquisite.

Dark, romantic and dreamy, this production of “Phantom” makes for a tantalizing feast for the senses. As a fan, I was dazzled by the production. As a reviewer, I suggest you see this show; especially if you’ve never been it before.

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