'Phantom' Without Webber: Sweet, Magical--but Enough

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the light opera . . . "Phantom" is back.

Let's avoid any confusion. This is not "The Phantom of the Opera," Andrew Lloyd Webber's gazillion-grossing Broadway smash. We're talking about "Phantom," the less-hyped musical version of Gaston Leroux's 1911 Grand Guignol novel by author Arthur Kopit and songwriter Maury Yeston.

Los Angeles County audiences have seen at least two prior versions of the latter show. The latest comes from director Irv Kimber and the Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities, whose spectacular, outsize production closing Sunday gives Lloyd Webber a run for his lucre.

Belching fog machines? Got 'em. Eye-popping Edwardian costumes? Got 'em. Crashing Toyota-sized chandelier? Got that, too. In fact, designer Xu Zheng He's grand depiction of the phantom's subterranean lair (with dramatic shafts of light from Liz Stillwell) summons the gloomy glory of Wagnerian opera. Call it "Phantammerung."

Not that this outing slights the slight songs or the fine book. While Lloyd Webber's version had a twisted sexual buzz, Kopit tells a far sweeter tragedy of star-crossed love between the deformed virtuoso Erik (Sean Smith ) and his naive pupil Christine (a rather staid Victoria Strong ).

Yeston's flat music and lyrics often disappoint, but Smith's creamy-smooth dramatic tenor is still remarkable. As the foppish diva La Carlotta, Lucy Daggett wins with some Carol Burnett-style mugging. And Jack Ritschel solidly reprises his role as the impresario Carriere.

Yes, the folks in Redondo Beach have proven that a Lloyd Webber-less "Phantom" can be magical. But an indefinite moratorium on both versions would probably give us a much-need breather.

* "Phantom," Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities, 1935 Manhattan Beach Blvd., Redondo Beach. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m., Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m., Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends Sunday. $20-35. (310) 372-4477. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.

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