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Phantom of the slots

NAME: Michael Crawford

DESCRIPTION: Star of the MGM Grand’s new $41 million extravaganza, “EFX,” in Las Vegas.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING: Compared to this, swinging from a chandelier was child’s play.

Michael Crawford is almost giddy as he escorts a visitor two flights below the 196-foot-wide stage of the MGM Grand Theater, pointing out the vast banks of computers, the cavernous, scenery-shifting elevators, the immense hydraulic pumps, the miles of electrical cable snaking through it all. Along with the $41 million tab for “EFX,” the special-effects extravaganza that snared the stage star for a two-year run, MGM dropped another $26 million on the 1,800-seat theater itself, a comparatively intimate corner of a complex that includes the world’s largest green hotel, the biggest casino, and a 33-acre theme park.

That’s a daunting burden for any actor to carry on one pair of shoulders, though in Crawford, the MGM has a certified stage star. Crawford is best known for swinging on a chandelier and singing “The Music of the Night” through a white half-mask in the title role of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “The Phantom of the Opera.” The actor reckons he performed the role 1,300 times: a year in London, another on Broadway, then 18 months in Los Angeles, where his eventual departure was a municipal day of mourning. Not bad for a British provincial so skinny as a young rep actor that his chief memory is of schoolkids throwing buns at him.

In “EFX,” Crawford plays Merlin, the wizard of Arthurian legend; circus impresario P.T. Barnum; science fiction novelist H.G. Wells; and escape artist Harry Houdini; as well as the show’s emcee, known as the EFX! Master. (The Phantom was to have been a member of this auspicious company, until Lloyd Webber nixed the idea.) Crawford never stops moving throughout the massive production’s 90-minute duration.

When MGM Grand owner Kirk Kerkorian first raised the idea of a gig for Crawford, veteran agent Mort Viner was hesitant about even mentioning the subject to his client: Vegas? But Crawford was winding up a year’s respite after the “Phantom” runs and a grueling road tour of “The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber.” And in a career that saw him mainly playing second-banana roles, the Phantom had been a Lloyd Webber-ordained fluke. A film of “Phantom,” for which he waited long months, has so far failed to materialize.

“Very reluctantly, Mort told me about the possibility, and to his amazement, I said, ‘Mort, I’m not disinterested in that idea,” Crawford says, back in his dressing suite. “Fifteen years ago I saw Siegfried & Roy. It was the new Vegas, and I saw the possibilities.”

In addition to a great deal of money, Kerkorian offered Crawford a hand in the show’s creation, an offer he took seriously – at some junctures, he admits, to the producers’ discomfit, as some of the ideas proved costly and the show was plagued by early delays. But for Crawford and the team of Broadway veterans who realized the astonishing physical production, “EFX” was an opportunity to let their imaginations run rampant while someone else was writing the very large checks. (See review, page 52.)

“I don’t have any qualms about not being in London or on Broadway, because I didn’t want to go on doing the same thing,” Crawford says. So he’s taken up residence in a comfortable gated community outside town, spending hours daily on the phone with his two grown daughters in London. And in a show of solidarity, Siegfried and Roy were in the audience early on.

Certain of the entertainment value in “EFX” and still slightly gaga by the adrenalin rush that got him to this point, Crawford concedes, “We haven’t made a masterpiece, and I’m not pretending that we have.

“But there are lesser evils than being in love with what you do.”

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