Phantom's ostentatious success has relied on selling it as the one show to see, a token event absolving you from aesthetic activities for the rest of the year. If you don't visit museums, hate the thought of ballet and opera, and only listen to classical on desert road trips when the radio falls on AM, don't worry; Phantom has a smattering of all of the above. Art, like contrition, is no damn fun. But Goth plots with a synth-drum beat sure are, and Phantom has both the rhythms and the Gothic template: An innocent heroine is caught in a cavernous stone castle inhabited by a creepy, misshapen piece of bastard nobility. He tries to seduce her but is thwarted by our hero. In Phantom, demi-blue blood Christine Daae is the victim, the Opera Ghost her psychological captor, and the French pretty-boy Vicomte de Chagny is there to save the day; if this were Puccini, Christine would yank out her hair and go mad from the duplicity. The ending isn't resolutely happy, but the tears are for romance, not tragedy. Write it yourself and you might be knighted just like Android Lord Blubber.

What's nice about the Curran Theater production is that it avoids the histrionics of the touring behemoth. This is a softer, humbler Phantom. The journeymen actors pumping out eight shows a week actually connect with their audience. The vocals aren't cranked up in volume, and there aren't the claptrap pauses waiting for applause to ripple around the amphitheater. Too much approval is given to the computer-programmed effects and not the solid character work by performers like Geena Jeffries as the preening prima donna, Carlotta. And the San Francisco show also charms with its slight mistakes: Christine is late on an entrance and dancers bump into set pieces. Unifying accidents remind you this is live theater, not merely the vehicle for a trinket or a T-shirt or a soundtrack album pushed by the Really Useful Theater Company. Maybe Phantom isn't the disease of an afflicted theater industry; maybe it's just another play.

-- Julie Chase

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