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STAGE REVIEW : Making Most of Part-Time 'Phantom' Role

June 28, 1989|SYLVIE DRAKE | Times Theater Writer

In the best of all possible views, "The Phantom of the Opera" is a fairy tale, pure and simple.

A concomitant to enjoying this blockbuster is a willing acceptance of its improbable premise (the existence of a freak of nature residing in the bowels of the French opera), its romantic aspects (the love of this freak for one of the young dancers in the chorus), and its Svengaliesque propositions (his psychological "possession" of the dancer/singer, Christine Daae, whom he grooms and trains to become a star by exerting an infatuating power over her).

Part and parcel of this enjoyment, then, is dependent on the chemistry generated between the Phantom and Christine and, to an inordinately large degree, on the right looks for each.

Michael Crawford, who has become all but synonymous with the title role, has this down pat. He's tall, slender, moves with a stealthy grace, uses his long-fingered hands with the artful delicacy of a dancer, is made more mysterious by the mask and dapper felt hat that partially cover his face--and is possessed (literally) of an echo chamber of a voice that fairly drips with charisma and sex.

How is a Christine to resist?

She is not. But to help us believe that she's helplessly drawn to this sorcerer, this enigmatic king of the netherworld, we also need to see in her a pliant, fragile, ultimately breakable creature powerless to fight the Phantom's magnetic pull.

In this regard, Mary D'Arcy, who plays Christine at all Tuesday and Wednesday night performances of "The Phantom" (as the alternate to featured performer, Dale Kristien), is close to perfect casting.

She has the grace, the crystalline voice, the temperamental transports and the porcelain-like quality demanded by the role. She even manages to seem haunted and insomniac (are those dark circles under her eyes?), bedeviled as it were by this unrelenting force that is claiming her. Yet she does not relinquish the mounting assurance acquired by the character as the show moves toward its climactic liberation from the Phantom's grip.

D'Arcy's Christine, in fact, enhances our belief in the Phantom's final heartbreak by believing in it herself. This is a Christine who is not just terrified and irresistibly swallowed up by him, like a limp vegetable (a clear danger in this role), but a Christine who ultimately has the capacity to become stronger than he is and therefore compassionate and giving.

Her brief voluntary return into the Phantom's lair at the end (as improbable as it might seem in any sort of realistic context) springs--appropriately--from an impulse of pity tinged with palpable concern, if not affection. There is, beyond the fear and loathing, the stirring of a genuine emotion. It is the understanding of the pain the man is in. This more than anything else is what makes "The Phantom" work.

Without taking anything away from the other days of the week, it works like gangbusters on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

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