The Phantom of the Opera
Durham Performing Arts Center
Through Dec. 20
The Phantom of the famous opera is basically Batman: a lonely, masked megalomaniac, a control-freak genius with fabulous powers and resources who lives in a world of darkness but is on a crusade to give his gift to the public, even though his rabid need to do it causes as much harm as good. And both the Phantom and Batman are brought down to earth and found out by women whom they have worked hard to control and deceive.
Depending on your disposition, Batman and Phantom represent either enduring works of art, ineradicable kitsch-camp infestations of the global entertainment market or stateless but heavily armed nocturnal warlords who travel the world demanding idolatry and tributes. In both cases, the show has neatly taken the shape of its puppet-master protagonist and is now itself the dark hero, far bigger than anyone or anything in it.
Perfect, then, that the ingénue Christine was played on Sunday night by the production's alternate, Kelly Jeanne Grant. The substitution is regular, according to the program's fine print (Grant performs the part every Sunday night), and it can't matter whether Grant or the incumbent, Trista Moldovan, inhabits the role. Who knows whether Moldovan's version would make the show better or worse, since the intention is for both actresses to be merely the same? Christine's famous high note is, apparently, prerecorded and piped in.
Nor is it clear whether this production (like Batman and its hero) is good or bad. It's The Phantom of the Opera: those mind-occupying songs, that chandelier. Think of it not as theater but as the circus rolling into town (an elephant hits the stage long before the chandelier does). It's not about artistry but the show's proliferation and interchangeability. A design glitch on the production's Web site makes it seem as if every single cast member has said: "It felt like 12 years of anticipation had been stored up for that night. It was truly an amazing feeling to see my name on the poster, on the dressing door and in the same line as 'The Phantom.'" Regardless of the sentiment's true author, it's perhaps best evinced by headliner Tim Martin Gleason, who is a convincing Phantom but also holds the record for most times playing Raoul, the Phantom's rival, which he did 2,600 times this decade. And that's nothing: Kim Stengel has played Carlotta more than 4,800 times.
What makes Grant's appearance as Christine make sense, though, is right at the end of her bio: Grant is "an avid marathon runner." Ah, of course. The Phantom of the Opera is a phenomenon less of quasi-fascist domination, artistic heights or falling chandeliers than of sheer longevity. Twenty-four years into its rule, it can't stop going even if it wants to, a slave to its own success. Doesn't it always seem, after all, like Batman's biggest oppression is of himself?