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Singing Praises of the New Man Behind the Mask : Stage: Robert Guillaume receives adulation and a standing ovation on his first night as the Phantom.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“The Phantom of the Opera,” May 1, 1990. Act I, Scene I. Fade out Crawford. Fade in Guillaume.

Actor Robert Guillaume on Tuesday stepped into the mask of the Phantom in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hit musical at the Ahmanson Theatre, only two days after original Phantom Michael Crawford took his final bows and left the same stage to thunderous ovations and cries of “Please Don’t Go!”

When Guillaume was first announced as Crawford’s replacement in the Los Angeles production, numerous Phantom freaks didn’t give him an opera ghost of a chance. How could a sitcom actor best known for playing a wisecracking butler-turned-lieutenant governor possibly possess the sensuality, strong voice and charisma of Crawford’s Phantom? they asked.

But many in attendance on Guillaume’s opening night were singing a different tune by the end of the performance.

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The consensus? Guillaume wasn’t Crawford. But he wasn’t a letdown either.

As the talkative crowd filed out of the Ahmanson, some were saying Guillaume was just as effective as his predecessor. Others said he was even better.

“I loved him, I loved him, I loved him!” said Beverly Kelly, 37, as she left the theater with a bag stuffed with Phantom souvenirs. “I thought it was great. I’m so glad I saw him instead of Crawford.”

Kelly, a special education teacher, said she had received the tickets in February as a birthday present, and was disappointed when she heard Crawford would be leaving before she got a chance to see him. “Now I feel the money didn’t go to waste,” she said.

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John Toay, 59, a pastor at a Presbyterian church in Downey, said “Guillaume was fabulous. I saw the play before with Crawford, and of course he was great. But I really liked Robert Guillaume in the part. I would see the play again with him in it.”

The only complaint heard around the Ahmanson was that Guillaume exhibited a little nervousness and seemed a bit stilted in his body language during his first appearences. But several audience members chalked it up to first-night jitters.

The capacity audience awarded the actor with a standing ovation, supplemented by whoops and cheers. While the response didn’t quite approach the adulation that Sunday’s audience bestowed upon Crawford, it still appeared to be a triumph for the 62-year-old Guillaume, who greeted the applause with a smile during his curtain call.

Guillaume won the role over hundreds of hopefuls. Although most know him as TV’s “Benson,” he is classically trained in theater and voice, and has appeared in stage productions of “Purlie,” “Guys and Dolls” and “Porgy and Bess.”

Still, several theatrical observers felt Crawford’s mask was too big to fill. The British actor had won several awards, including a Tony, for his portrayal of the love-stuck murderer. Fans returned to see him as many as 100 times. Large crowds gathered outside the stage door to wait for autographs or a picture.

His departure was regarded as a milestone in L.A. theater. Scalpers’ prices for the final week of Crawford’s performances reached thousands of dollars. The frenzy by non-ticket holders to get a final glimpse of Crawford’s Phantom continued outside the Ahmanson even after the musical began on Sunday.

But on Tuesday, no trace of Crawford was to be found. His picture had been removed from display cases and from the complimentary program. However, Guillaume’s picture only appeared once in the program above the cast biographies, and no pictures of him as the Phantom were to be seen.

Before the lights went down, some in the audience said they felt nervous for Guillaume. “I feel like we should all give him a cheer,” said one woman sitting in the Parquet Terrace to her companion. “I think everyone here is rooting for him.”

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As the theater darkened, she chanted, “Go, Robert!”

The audience was silent at Guillaume’s first appearence as the Phantom, materializing behind a mirror. The mask that covered his disfigured face was a metallic gray, while Crawford’s had been ivory.

During the Phantom’s main ballad, “Music of the Night,” Guillaume exhibited a deep, expressive voice, but not the sensual body language that had been Crawford’s trademark. He did not rub his hands over his body, and did not make much contact with Christine (Dale Kristien), the object of the Phantom’s affection.

Still, by intermission, Guillaume seemed to have won many audience members over.

“He’s made the part his own,” said Gregory Gershuni, 35, an attorney who has seen “Phantom” six times. “He’s sensual, but in a different sort of way. He has the same intensity as Crawford. Crawford was slick and polished. But this is Guillaume’s opening night, and I’m in awe of him.”

Dennis Landa, 48, who sat next to Gershuni, said he had never seen “Phantom” before, “so I have nothing to compare to. But I can’t imagine anyone else in the role. I can really feel the pathos and the emotion.”

Despite the fanfare of Guillaume’s maiden voyage, his curtain call was relatively low key. He was not presented with flowers, as Crawford was at his final performance, and most of his bows were taken while holding hands with other cast members.

Crawford will soon be making the film version of “Phantom.” But the new man in the mask will be at the Ahmanson for at least the rest of the year.

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“And I’ll definitely be back,” Gershuni said.


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