Music of the Slight : Betty Buckley and company sing the works of Lloyd Webber at the Pantages, but the production values get short shrift.

TIMES THEATER CRITIC

What has dancing felines, a chandelier and a singing savior? Why, "Andrew Lloyd Webber--Music of the Night," of course, which opened at the Pantages on Wednesday night. Betty Buckley stars in this tribute to Lord (recently upgraded from Sir) Andrew, along with a 32-piece onstage orchestra and a strong-voiced ensemble of 11.

The show, a greatest-hits revue, is touring the United States and is only in Los Angeles through Jan. 19. "Music of the Night" has its moments, most in the second act, but it must be said: This is a cheesy affair, shockingly so when you consider who put it together. A production of Livent, the Canadian producing giant (a.k.a. Garth Drabinksy), it is the work of some of Broadway's top names, including Tony Walton (sets), William Ivey Long (costumes), Paul Gallo (lights) and director Scott Ellis.

There's something cynical about "Music"--as if someone, somewhere, decided that a lot of glitz and little substance would satisfy Lloyd Webber fans. Buckley's entrance down a stairway in an unflattering, sparkling cherry suit with a short skirt is the first in a series of miscalculations. The star seems to be wandering the stage aimlessly in her all-important opening number, "As If We Never Said Goodbye," which she sang on Broadway as Norma Desmond in "Sunset Boulevard."

This is followed by a truly awful "Evita" montage. As Che, John Herrera seems as angry as a "Star Search" contestant after someone had pilfered his mousse. Herrera looks credible, however, next to a bevy of young women in red party dresses performing Vegas-style hip and hand movements while embodying revolutionaries furious about goings-on in Argentina.

Things improve later. In the second act, Buckley gives a scintillating glimpse into her Norma when she sings "Greatest Star." She offers a dementia touched by sweetness. But her most affecting number is "Memory" from "Cats," a song she originated on Broadway back in 1982. The delicate rue in her vibrato, so appropriate to the bittersweet lyric, has grown richer and sadder still. In her hands, the much overplayed song takes on a new patina of melancholy and has an authenticity sorely lacking from most of the rest of the show.

The young ensemble backing Buckley sings well but is ill served by the vacuous choreography of John DeLuca and Kathleen Marshall. Their dancing is the most obvious sign that the show's creators did not fight hard enough to approach the songs with honest emotion; instead, they gave in far too easily to cliche and inanity. The second-act dancing is simpler and better, particularly when the ensemble sits on chairs in the "Sunset Boulevard" sequence, and in "Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats," a charming number from the early Lloyd Webber songbook.

At the end of Act 1, Kevin R. Wright allows far too many gratuitous vocal frills into "Gethsemane" from "Jesus Christ Superstar"--the original concept was that Jesus was akin to a rock star, not Engelbert Humperdinck. But, miraculously, in the second act, Wright transforms into a vocally clean and prematurely callous Joe Gillis from "Sunset Boulevard." He offers a chance to hear the title song unclouded by the portentousness of Alan Campbell's interpretation, and it sounds more believably embittered.

*

Unfortunately the same cannot be said for Herrera's "Music of the Night." Though he sings well, his faux-spooky acting only underlines all that is ludicrous in "The Phantom of the Opera."

Jill Patton and Lisa Atkinson offer a beautiful, Delibes-like harmony in "Requiem," and Tonya Dixon is fresh-faced and lovely as part of a "Love Changes Everything" quartet from "Aspects of Love."

The set--a huge, raked bandstand for the orchestra, with entrance ways and narrow playing area for the actors--at first promises the grandeur of Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movies. But the rest of the design doesn't deliver. The costumes are not smart and the backdrop of glittering stars, in which inevitable objects appear--cat eyes, a chandelier and, most unfortunately, a giant cross--is tacky.

The music of Andrew Lloyd Webber contains authentic emotion and haunting melody but can venture perilously close to pompous--all the more reason to approach these songs with honesty. This is why Lord Andrew needs more protection than, say, someone like Stephen Sondheim who protects himself. Die-hard Lloyd Webber fans may kvell at "Music of the Night," but no one else is likely to do so.

* "Andrew Lloyd Webber--Music of the Night," Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Jan. 19. $22-$48. (213) 365-3500. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

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"Andrew Lloyd Webber--Music of the Night"

Starring: Betty Buckley

With: Tonya Dixon, John Herrera, Jill Patton, Kevin R. Wright, Lisa Atkinson, Chris Diamantopoulos ,Tracey Flye , Michele Lynch, Raymond Rodriguez, Keith Spencer, Carmen Yurich.

A Livent (U.S.) Inc. production by special arrangement with the Really Useful Group and Superstar Ventures Ltd. Conceived by David Thompson. Directed by Scott Ellis. Sets Tony Walton. Costumes William Ivey Long. Lighting Paul Gallo. Sound Martin Levan. Choreography John DeLuca and Kathleen Marshall. Orchestrations William David Brohn and David Cullen. Musical director Jay Alger. Production stage manager Tracy Lightel.

For the Record Los Angeles Times Saturday January 11, 1997 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 4 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction Song title--A review of "Andrew Lloyd Webber--Music of the Night" on Friday included an incorrect song title. Betty Buckley sang "With One Look," not "Greatest Star."
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