Kitsch in Sync

Serial killer, masked man and ghetto diva--but, dang it, not in the same show

Rats, The Mousetrap is back. So is The Phantom of the Opera, that great and glorious hunk of cheese from the grand vizier of musical cheddar, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber. The former is onstage at Theatre Three; the latter has parked its high-fat touring production in the Music Hall at Fair Park for several weeks.

The shows, each selling a certain kind of tried-and-true showbiz kitsch, have something else in common: longevity. Mousetrap, the Agatha Christie mystery, remains the longest-running straight play on a London stage--54 years and counting. Phantom holds the record for the longest Broadway run, 18 years, beating Cats and A Chorus Line. That says something about the popularity of these works, though by now about the only reason any serious theatergoer would waste time seeing The Mousetrap in London is if the ticket were part of a package tour, along with a trip to Madame Tussauds. The silly old play is as much a waxwork as that museum's permanently staring replicas of Dolly Parton and Jack the Ripper.

The Mousetrap is mystery trapped in amber, and Theatre Three director Kerry Cole does little to free it from its sticky conventions other than to ask a couple of actors to so overplay their roles that they threaten to explode right out of their costumes. Suspense? Not much. The only real puzzle for the audience to ponder is if it all will be over in time to catch the 10 o'clock news. (Sadly, no. Letterman's Top 10 maybe.)

The Mousetrap--with Ashley Wood, Carolyn Wickwire and Laurel Whitsett--is a hunk  of cheese.
Andy Hanson
The Mousetrap--with Ashley Wood, Carolyn Wickwire and Laurel Whitsett--is a hunk of cheese.

The play opens with a radio newsman alerting the masses to a killer on the loose. A young couple (Ashley Wood and Lisa Schreiner at the performance reviewed) in the throes of opening their own bed-and-breakfast welcome a succession of odd-bodies over the threshold. Any one of them--cranky old magistrate (Carolyn Wickwire), effeminate architect (Chad Peterson), Italian gigolo (Bob Hess, providing the evening's only engaging performance), sullen lesbian (Tracy Leigh), army officer (Michael Craig Rains), plodding detective (David M. Dixon)--might be the murderer. There's not a butler among them to pin it on, but by the end of the first act it becomes pretty obvious who's doing the deadly deeds.

Not that you'll care. When at last the murderer is unmasked, he (or she) goes into such a crazy, breathless B-movie tizzy that the moment is ruined. Why a play this artless has run for half a century is the real mystery.

But wait, speaking of masks, I wasn't expecting much from The Phantom of the Opera either, and that show's latest touring production has ended up winning me over. Bang the pipe organ, call me a Fan-tom and buy me the T-shirt. I loved it.

Having previously caught only Michael Crawford's strangled croak straining for the high notes of "Music of the Night," it was a revelation to hear that song and the Phantom's other biggie, "All I Ask of You," at last sung flawlessly and with real gutsy oomph by the tour's star, Gary Mauer. What a voice. But better, what an actor. And it can't be easy getting angst across the footlights with that half-pound of plastic glued to his cheek.

The strong acting of the story gives this Phantom of the Opera its depth and offers better accessibility to the horror movie plot line than previous productions, on Broadway or elsewhere (don't even talk about the lifeless 2004 movie version). Now it's not just about show-offy singing by the handsome leads. Mauer, Marie Danvers as ingénue Christine and Jim Weitzer as Christine's boyfriend Raoul really work at turning what can be plastic characters into real people with real feelings.

On Broadway, Crawford's Phantom always seemed a little wispy and unsure, like a British Barry Manilow living in the tunnels under a gay bathhouse. Something about his fluttery fingers and the way he twirled his cape. Mauer's is more of a muy mas macho monster, but one who's more misunderstood than murderous. For the first time, it's really clear what screwed the guy up in the first place. As he reveals in the final scenes, after he has kidnapped Christine not for sex but for voice lessons, we learn that the Phantom was born deformed and sold into the circus as a child by his uncaring mum. Like the Hunchback of Notre Dame and the Elephant Man, he just wants to be loved for who he is inside. He haunts the dark corners of the opera house because he likes the music. And clearly he acts out badly when he's caught out of costume. Without his white half-mask and black toupee, the Phantom looks a lot like the balding Shirley MacLaine after the car wreck in Postcards From the Edge.

The production on view at the Music Hall, like the Broadway show, was directed by the old master, Harold Prince, and designed by Maria Björnson with enough scenery for five other shows. As spectacles go, Phantom is Wicked sans flying monkeys, with almost too many moving elements, too many shiny costumes and exploding flashpots. Extravagant layers of two-story-high velvet curtains part, and the stage gleams in the retro glow of the 19th-century Paris Opera. Moments later the scenery shifts seamlessly to unveil the Phantom's murky underground lair. He and Christine float in on a little gondola through hundreds of flickering candles and clouds of mist, and it's hold-your-breath time.

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