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‘Phantom’ swings into Las Vegas

New $35 mil prod'n will open at the Venetian Hotel and Casino in May

The drapery of that faded opera house will extend all the way to the lobby and move on its own volition. Huge flames will emerge from faux-Victorian wall sconces. And that iconic chandelier? Now a bauble on steroids, it starts out in four huge quadrants that magically come together before the audience’s eyes at the top of the show.

And before the climax of the night, its massive bulk will crash to the floor at the speed of a free fall.

That’s six times faster than on Broadway.

At the end of May, “The Phantom of the Opera” will meet its next frontier — the Nevada desert, where attention spans are short and the bar is high.

The new Las Vegas production of the musical at the Venetian Hotel and Casino will have a running time of only about 90 minutes. But it’s not exactly what you could call a cut-down version.

Hal Prince, who’s directed the thing himself and seems positively giddy to get to play with lots of new toys, likes to call the upcoming Vegas version “Phantom plus.”

You can see why. According to executive producer Scott Zeiger of Clear Channel Entertainment (soon to be Live Nation), “Phantom” is costing $35 million. Its new home, created by David Rockwell and his Rockwell Group in the old Vegas home of the Guggenheim Museum’s “Art of the Motorcycle” exhibit, adds another $40 million or so to the tab.

That’s a little less than colossal Cirque du Soleil projects like “Ka” at the MGM Grand, but by Broadway or West End standards, these still are stratospheric amounts. Zeiger points out that the budget is three times as large as the original “Phantom,” even after you adjust for inflation.

For one thing, they’ve had to create their own space in a place near the Strip side of the Venetian hotel that wasn’t designed or intended for live performance. “In essence,” says Rockwell, “we built a new, fully functioning Broadway theater inside that huge industrial box.”

Like most of the other major Vegas attractions, “Phantom’s” custom environment offers little distinction between the look of what’s onstage and the ambiance of the auditorium — and even the lobby. Vegas-style design doesn’t worry about any proscenium line.

“It’s a sight-specific installation,” says Rockwell. “Our goal was to augment the show and create an environment that starts to tell the story from the moment an audience member walks into the lobby.”

In many ways, Prince, Rockwell and the rest are walking a fine line here. And they know it. The audience is coming to the show because of the familiarity of the title, the popularity of the original Broadway production and the proven pleasures of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s well-known score. It’s an entirely different prospect, say, from starting a spectacle from scratch.

“Phantom” has fans who aren’t looking for something they no longer recognize as “Phantom.” Vegas or no Vegas.

“I was pleased to hear about the idea,” Prince says, “but I immediately said that what’s more important than what you are doing is how you are going to do it … If we had rethought the whole thing visually, people would have been ready to kill us.”

“We wanted to stay true to the story and the romantic nature of the show, and we’ve done that by using the original creative team,” Zeiger says. In other words, this is still Maria Bjornson’s iconic design at the core. But it’s been enhanced — greatly enhanced — by her longtime collaborator Paul Kelly.

“The idea of the opera house,” Rockwell says, “was the inspiration for everything.”

And Prince cut the show himself with help from Lloyd Webber and the other original collaborators. (A few years ago, Prince cut “Fiddler” for a Vegas stand, which he says was “a lot harder to do.”)

“We know we can’t get away with doing a Reader’s Digest version,” Prince says. “There’s an expectation that the story and the romance will be delivered. And there’s an expectation of something much bigger and much grander.”

Rockwell promises: “The entire theater will be covered in drapes now. It will be as if (environmental artist) Christo had made a brief stop in Vegas.”

This being Vegas, “Phantom” will do 10 shows a week, necessitating double casting in the tough-to-sing major roles.

Zeiger says that pricing hasn’t yet been determined, but the show is likely to top out between $100 and $150 per, which is midrange by Vegas standards. You can also expect some stunt men showing up in the cast. Not too much call for them on Broadway.

But in other key ways, this is still a legit show. It’s an Equity cast. You can expect substantial Broadway (and maybe “Phantom”) credits from the main performers, although Zeiger says he doesn’t anticipate marketing any celebs. And there will be a live orchestra. The players will be visible, and not hidden in a pit.

“That full orchestra will differentiate us,” Zeiger says, “from 90% of the other Vegas attractions that are out there.”

And how long will this haunt go on? The capitalization has been done with a very long run in mind. “We’re right by the main elevator bank to the hotel rooms in the Venetian,” Zeiger says. “It had better be more than five years.”

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