Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2008
This is NOT Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera. I mean that both ways – it isn’t the one he composed and it is nothing like his version. This version, which goes simply by the title of Phantom has a book by Arthur Kopit (what a cool career he's had!) and music and lyrics by Maury Yeston – the same team who created the Tony Award-winning musical Nine – and its genesis actually predates Lloyd Webber’s involvement with the source material by about two years. I won’t bore you with who held which copyright in what country, but even though Kopit and Yeston had done most of the creative work and were in the process of finders backers for a Broadway run, they deferred to Lloyd Webber and his Phantom of the Opera went on to become an international sensation. But Kopit and Yeston realized that their work was substantially different from Lloyd Webber’s and in 1991 Phantom made its debut at the Theater Under the Stars in Houston, TX.
It is billed as “The American Musical Sensation” (a not-so-subtle dig at the foreign invasion of Broadway with shows by the British Lloyd Webber and the French team of Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil) and Yeston refers to the show as "the greatest hit never to be produced on Broadway."
When I interviewed Lynne Haydn a few months ago for the article I wrote celebrating the Mac-Haydn’s Ruby Jubilee season, she told me Phantom was one of her very favorite shows that the theatre had presented in its 40-year history, which was why she planned to stage it again this year. And now I see why. For some unfathomable reason and against all odds, it is the perfect fit in the quirky, intimate confines of the Mac-Haydn.
Associate Producer Barbara Peduzzi wrote in her press release for the show: “The technical designers and crews spent long hours creating and installing the stunning and dramatic looks and effects of this show, finishing some of them literally only minutes before opening. Imagine seeing some of these in any theatre, let alone a small theatre-in-the-round: a full stage turntable, an elegant chandelier that crashes to the stage, sparking electrics effects, mirrors and smoke – and then imagine installing them in just three days time! The behind the scenes people are among the true stars of this production.”
Hear, hear! All of that is true and I couldn’t have said it better myself. Hairspray closed on Sunday night and by Thursday at two there was the Paris Opera, complete with more eerily dripping fake candles than you ever thought it was possible to hide in the rafters of the Mac-Haydn. At Hairspray I missed the proscenium arch framing the cartoon-like characters and providing them with a vivid backdrop against which to dance. It complained that they looked like they were floating around in a black void. Well, that is exactly where the Phantom lives! And so what was a hindrance last week became a major asset for this production. The atmosphere of the Mac-Haydn was an absolutely perfect fit for the role of the depths of the Palais Garnier.
I will now confess that I don’t understand why people get so excited over Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel The Phantom of the Opera which was first published as a serial in Le Gaulois. The other winter I was forced, er, kindly invited to see the touring production of Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera that opened the newly refurbished main stage at Proctor’s, and took the opportunity to read the novel. Either I had the world’s worst translation, or that is one bad book. The first two-thirds are quite entertaining, but then, as Leroux sends his characters deeper and deeper under the Paris Opera house, the whole story disintegrates into a confusing cacophony of implausibility until, by the end, you just don’t give a damn anymore.
And what’s with this Christine Daeé chick anyway? You do realize that, in the novel and in Lloyd Webber’s version she actually CHOOSES the hunky boring guy over the romantic but misshapen Phantom, don’t you? It is obvious that Erik, the Phantom, is her soul-mate but she opts for the safety of looks, money, and social status over the purity of love and music that should be the core of the story but isn’t because Leroux can’t write a convincing heroine. What a shallow dim girl Christine is! Why should I invest my time in her just because she can carry a tune? I like my sopranos with more substance.
Thankfully, Kopit and Yeston do not stick as closely to Leroux’s original as Lloyd Webber did. They have tried to make the Phantom into a more fully-realized and sympathetic character, and to do so have imagined that the character of long-time Paris Opera manager Gerard Carriere is his father. They have also taken the whole story less seriously, adding more camp elements, notably the comic relief provided by the new owners of the Opera, the Grand Dame Madame Carlotta and her fawning husband Cholet.
Here the show opens with Christine’s (Crystal Mosser) arrival in Paris. The handsome, wealthy, and dashing champagne heir Count Philippe de Chandon (Robert Teasdale) hears her singing on the street and gives her his card to take as an introduction Carriere (Johnnie Moore) with instructions that she be given singing lessons. But Carriere has just that day been deposed by Cholet (John Saunders) and Carlotta (Monica M. Wemitt). The diva has no interest in any new young singers and assigns Christine to the wardrobe department, where she meets her mysterious Maestro, the Phantom (Ben Jacoby), who offers to give her singing lessons. She does not know his name and may not see his face or mention their association to anyone.
In the meantime Carlotta lousy singing and constant intrusions into his realm anger the Phantom. Philippe arranges for Christine to make her singing debut at a nearby Bistro, which leads to Cholet signing her to sing in the chorus, but Carlotta insists she sing the leading role of Titania, Queen of the Fairies (presumably in some operatic version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream), only to sabotage her with poison on her opening night. This is when the Phantom, who has already murdered one of Carlotta’s flunkies, brings down the chandelier and carries Christine off to his home deep beneath the Opera House.
By the time the final curtain falls a few more dead bodies will litter the stage. The staging of Carlotta’s death is literally electrifying, and highly satisfying too because Wemitt has made her the ultimate villainess you love to hate. The Phantom’s mask gets progressively bloodier, Christine becomes even more dim-witted than she was at the start, and before you know it she is begging to see his face. “I know your eyes and I know your heart,” she tells him. She also knows that his face is horribly disfigured, but when she sees it she still screams and runs off. Duh! What was she expecting? Anyway, Carriere rescues her and the police shoot Erik, who then spends a lot of time singing his death scene. Just before he breathes his last Christine decides he wasn’t so awful looking after all, now that she knows she will never have to see him again and is free to make a life with handsome yet incredibly dull Philippe (did I mention he was a champagne heir?) The end.
Jacoby has the unenviable task of acting with half his face covered. Luckily he has a fine, passionate voice and a supple body which aid in getting Erik’s feelings and intentions across. He gets to do a lot of lurking in the shadows too.
Mosser plays Christine perfectly as pretty girl who sings well and hasn’t a thought in her head. She looks lovely and hits all the high notes and doesn’t complicate her performance by creating a character where none exists. Teasdale is equally perfect as the vapid and handsome Philippe. I hope you realize that it is the characters here who are dull, not the performers, they are talented young people doing what the script calls for.
As mentioned before, Wemitt is very funny and in good voice as the detestable diva, Carlotta, and Saunders is obviously having a great time teamed with her. Moore plays Carriere very, very earnestly.
It takes a vast company playing many different roles to support this core cast. Director Doug Hodge and choreographer Kelly L. Shook move this large cast around nimbly, creating, some fabulous stage pictures in conjunction with Bud Clark’s atmospheric set, and Andrew Gmoser’s finely-tuned lighting. Every minute of work by all the aforementioned designers and their crews pays off big-time in an elegant and fast-paced entertainment.
Kopit and Yeston’s Phantom wears many masks, all of which cover the entire top half of his face, not the quarter face mask used in the Lloyd Webber version, and we actually do see his face, which means that Jacoby is wearing heavy prosthetics on his face under the parade of masks. I am impressed that he was able to speak and sing as clearly as he did.
I think Wig Designer Caitlin Maxwell had more work to do on this show than she did for Hairspray. Big hair goes in and out of fashion, this show may be set at the turn of the 20th century but Maxwell has opted for Louis XIV era wigs on most of the ladies. In some cases the big hair disguised even bigger special effects.
Jimm Halliday has designed outrageous, flamboyant costumes. My favorite was Carlotta’s rotund green and orange gown that made her look like a not-quite-ripe pumpkin.
The real star of the novel and both of these musicals is the historic and fascinating Palais Garnier or Paris Opéra. There really is a lake underneath it. There are 2,531 doors which require 7,593 keys. And the central chandelier, which weighs over six tons, really did fall in 1876, killing one person. But most of all it is just a glorious big frilly building – the kind they just don’t make anymore. Kinda makes you want to book passage today, doesn’t it? Phantom runs through August 3 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre on Route 203 just north of the center of Chatham, NY. Then show runs two hours and forty-five minutes with one intermission. It would be too scary for children under ten, but all other ages will enjoy it thoroughly. For tickets and information call the box office at 518-392-9292.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008