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'Phantom's' Mishaps of the Night : Theater: Cast and crew remember some of the more eventful performances as the musical winds up its lengthy L.A. run.

August 28, 1993|DON SHIRLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As "The Phantom of the Opera" prepares to disappear from the Ahmanson Theatre for the last time Sunday, it's time to tell stories.

To most of the onlookers, L.A.'s "Phantom"--played by Michael Crawford, Robert Guillaume and Davis Gaines--appeared to be a marvel of well-oiled stagecraft. But appearances can deceive--which is perhaps appropriate, considering that the show is about a man with appearance problems of his own.

"At almost every show, something goes haywire," said Gaines, who will have played the masked man in Los Angeles for 942 performances, longer than anyone else here.

One day, as Gaines was busy transporting Christine to the Phantom's lair via the show's now famous gondola, singing "The Music of the Night," suddenly the gondola took a wrong turn. Then it started backing up.

"I dropped the stick, grabbed Christine, and ran," recalled Gaines, "while the boat was doing its own little choreography behind us." A new stagehand who was operating the remote control hadn't quite learned all the moves.

At another point in the musical, during a performance at the "opera," a dummy representing the hanged corpse of the Phantom's latest victim is supposed to fall from above. But one night, the corpse made an unexpected appearance, dropping into the rooftop love scene between Christine and Raoul. Dale Kristien, who has played Christine from the beginning of the run, just kept singing, she recalled.

Immediately following the "Music of the Night" scene is a duet between the Phantom, seated at his keyboard, and the awakening Christine. At one performance, just before the scene began, all the scenery was suddenly swept back into the wings, including the keyboard with Gaines, and Kristien found herself alone on a dark stage.

According to Kristien, a stagehand audibly remarked, "You can't see (expletive) out there." A wrong button had been pushed, advancing the computerized set changes one scene too far, and the show ground to a halt for five minutes while the problem was fixed. While Kristien was waiting in the darkness, the 164 trapdoors from which the previous scene's many candelabra sprout were wide open; Kristien could have fallen into a hole if she had moved.

Those candelabra--or rather, the absence of them when they got jammed--were the source of several other anecdotes related by cast members. The stage became a potentially dangerous obstacle course whenever they were out of order.

One of the candelabra snagged Christine's nightgown at a performance and ripped off half of it. (She had another costume on underneath.)

Perhaps the production's most harrowing moment involved the giant grid that enables the Phantom's pursuers to drop into his lair near the end of the show. One night, after the final scene ended and the curtain fell, the grid started to rise into the flyspace above the stage--with an understudy still tethered to it. "The ballerinas started screaming," said Gaines, and the grid was stopped before any damage was done.

It was the pit musicians who led the complaints about another potential threat: the fog that covers the stage twice during the show. Responding to members' respiratory complaints, the American Federation of Musicians requested an investigation of the fog in 1991. Jeff Magro, an industrial hygienist for the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration, conducted an investigation from a perch in the orchestra pit during a performance.

Magro found that permissible levels for chemicals were not being violated. However, he recommended two steps that might make the fog more tolerable, and at least one of the recommendations was acted on, said a spokeswoman for the production. Clarinet player Roy D'Antonio said the air quality in the pit "has improved considerably" in the last six months.

Not all of the "Phantom" lore involves machines and hardware. Michael Piontek, the current Raoul in the show, recalled a night when a group of actors rigged up a large cutout image of Piontek and posed with it offstage, bowing to it as if it were a shrine. Piontek was onstage, supposedly fretting about his sweetheart Christine, when he noticed the prank and "burst out laughing."

Other actors recalled a night when Michael Crawford forgot a few of the lyrics of "Music of the Night," and Kristien fed him the lines from under her breath.

But at least he was there for his scene. Gail Land Hart, who plays the opera's wardrobe mistress, recalled a moment when an understudy for Madame Giry, the imperious director of the corps de ballet, failed to show up. Realizing that Giry's lines had to be said by someone , Hart--dressed as the wardrobe mistress--took it upon herself to congratulate Christine and chew out the other ballerinas . "I got the laugh," said Hart, and while the rabid fans may have noticed, "the rest of the audience didn't know the difference."

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