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THEATER REVIEW : ‘Phantom’ Peers Behind the Myth : The Arthur Kopit/Maury Yeston version, presented by San Diego Civic Light Opera at the Spreckels Theatre, is the story of a man who has both beauty and ugliness in his soul.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The popularity of “The Phantom of the Opera,” in any of its several guises, is a tribute to the primal, enduring passions exposed by Gaston LeRoux in his 1911 novel.

The ill-fated love of the Phantom for soprano Christine Daee taps into the emotions of anyone who has yearned in vain for an idealized figure. At the same time, the tensions between them suggest the painful relationship between an artist and his art: Christine’s is the beautiful face of music we hear on stage, while the Phantom’s disfigured face personifies the torment of the creative process that brings that music into being.

Beauty and Beast. Darkness and Light. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s mega-hit version of “Phantom of the Opera,” which will end its four-year run in Los Angeles in August, explores that dichotomy on a mythic level. But the Arthur Kopit/Maury Yeston version, “Phantom,” being presented by the San Diego Civic Light Opera at the Spreckels Theatre through April 4, is very much the story of a man who has both beauty and ugliness in his own soul.

Because it deals with a man rather than a myth, this “Phantom"--though handsomely built and powerfully sung--seems smaller than Lloyd Webber’s, and yields more intimate rewards. The most tender love song is not between the Phantom and Christine, but between the Phantom and his father.

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And though there is no crashing chandelier in this version, the set design (by the late Ken Holamon) ties in smoothly with the romantic, old-fashioned charm of the Spreckels and provides some explosive surprises (watch those balconies!) as well as a rich view of the Phantom’s subterranean life.

The Kopit/Yeston score is nowhere near as memorable as Lloyd Webber’s. Still, there are numbers that stand out, especially “You Are Music,” sung first by the phantom to Christine and later by Christine back again, and “The Story of Erik,” in which we learn the history of the unhappy, disfigured man.

The play takes a while to find itself, though. In stark contrast to Lloyd Webber’s haunted, ominous opening, this show begins shakily with a relentlessly perky Christine (Christina Saffran) selling songs in the street. Slowly--too slowly--we are introduced to the other characters: the phantom (Keith Rice), Carriere (Jack Ritschel), the soon-to-be-ex-manager of the opera house and Carlotta (Teri Ralston), the diva who buys the opera house along with her husband Cholet (Darryl Ferrera).

Don and Bonnie Ward, co-artistic directors of the Civic Light Opera, directed and choreographed with their usual penchant for the light rather than the dark side of the story--one of this production’s flaws. Saffran is a versatile, experienced actress with an exquisite voice but seems to have been guided into playing a one-note ingenue here.

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Rice does better revealing the inner conflicts of the tortured Phantom. Ralston--who will be heading to New York next month to recreate her original role in Stephen Sondheim’s “Company"--is a comic treasure as the pompous scheming diva, and Ritschel brings dignity to the role of Carriere.

Kopit and Yeston completed “Phantom” in 1985, hoping to take it to Broadway. But when Lloyd Webber announced his plans to create “Phantom of the Opera,” financing for Kopit and Yeston dried up. But it is clear that “Phantom” sets off its own undeniable glow.

* “Phantom,” Spreckels Theatre, 121 Broadway, San Diego. Through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 7 p.m. with matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2. $17-$32. (619) 278-8497, (619) 544-7827. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes. Christina Saffran: Christine Daee Raymond Saar: Count Philippe de Chandon Darryl Ferrera: Alain Cholet Jack Ritschel: Gerard Carrier Clay Rider: Jean-Claude Teri Ralston: La Carlotta Keith Rice: The Phantom William Nolan: Inspector LeDoux Christine Phelps: Belladova Frederick Christopher Birchmore: Young Erik

A San Diego Civic Light Opera production. Music and lyrics by Maury Yeston. Book by Arthur Kopit. Directed and choreographed by Don and Bonnie Ward. Sets: Ken Holamon. Costumes: B. Modern. Lighting: Gregory Allen Hirsch. Sound: Mark Ockenfels. Wigs and makeup: Donnalee Braden. Stage manager: Elizabeth Stephens.

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