Irving — “No, not that one.” This is likely to be the one sentence most uttered about Phantom, presented by Mainstage Irving-Las Colinas at the Irving Arts Center. Yes, it’s that story. No, it’s not that musical. Does it stand on its own?
Well, yes and no…
Maury Yeston’s (music and lyrics) and Arthur Kopit’s (book) version of Gaston Leroux’s famous story The Phantom of the Opera is a bit heavy on the melodrama, but generally OK. But it’s not in the same solar system as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s famous version of the same story.
Is it fair to compare two musicals that share subject matter? After all, Hollywood does this sort of thing all the time. There’s nothing that says two versions of the same story can’t exist in musical form. Therefore there may be an assumption that making comparisons isn’t quite fair. Well…
Here’s the deal. In anything, it’s always about who is first to market. And in that category, Webber wins by five years. Yeston and Kopit wrote their version of this story several years after the world-altering success of Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman singing to each other in the catacombs beneath the Paris Opera House. So, they invite comparisons because they wrote this mediocre show in a world that already had a successful musical Phantom.
That said, there are some plot differences. In this version, as in Leroux’s book, the Phantom has a name, Erik (Patrick Jones). He is protected by Gerard Carriere (James Williams), the manager of the Opera House. Their world is thrown into tumult when Carriere is replaced by the new manager, Cholet (Dan Servetnick), who makes his wife Carlotta (Kourtney Kimbrough) the new diva despite her lack of talent. This turns the Phantom to Christine Daaé (Kristen Lassiter), who was recently discovered selling songs on the street by the Count of Chandon (John Wenzel). So, there are some similar characters and a somewhat similar plot, save for a weird paternal plot twist.
It’s also worth noting that neither musical is particularly faithful to the book, though Webber definitely comes closer.
One of the great travesties in theater is when excellent talent is wasted on mediocre shows. Lassiter and Kimbrough are both impressive in song and action. Kimbrough especially, having to play the shrewish and untalented Carlotta, shines in all her despicable glory. It’s a shame they didn’t have better material to work with.
Jones’ Phantom is a victim of the sensational story and the particular choice in opera capes that leaves him looking like a masked Dracula more than the skulking, dark tormentor of the Opera. Any arm movement unfurls the cape’s underside of bright red satin. Add that to the pristine tuxedo he wears and it’s really hard to believe this guy basically lives in the sewers. Jones doesn’t make it better by constantly holding his arms outward from his sides, showcasing the bright red and giving him a look of hokey presentation wherever he goes. Finally, his general movement is jerky and again, over-the-top. This Phantom is more humanized than Webber’s but Jones’ performance, though vocally impressive, takes away from that quality and steers the ship into silly daytime television land.
On the technical side, again, there’s a reason Webber’s Phantom isn’t produced much outside of New York and big touring productions (coming to the AT&T Performing Arts Center soon). The set is demanding. The score is demanding. The costumes are demanding. This is a big show. And though MILC is usually smart about putting on shows that look like they have a much higher budget than they do, this is not the case here.
So, let’s talk about the chandelier. You know the famous scene—the chandelier crashes into the stage. How could they possibly pull that off? If you’re thinking basic, cheesy computer animation that looks more at home in a 1998 children’s movie than a 2014 stage, you’re both really specific and right.
Director Michael Serrecchia was faced with many great challenges in mounting this show. The set was a big part of that. His solution was to have Nate Davis design animations that to be projected onto the backdrop. They would serve as the scenery, transition between scenes as if by a first-person view of moving through the opera house. The projections even portray some of the actors’ movements, allowing them to be on stage in video form while making a transition. If that’s confusing, apologies. It’s weird enough that explaining it is difficult, except to say that it’s odd.
This is how the chandelier is handled: It’s stationed at the top of the screen and crashed onto the bottom of the screen while actors pretend to dodge it. Silly, to say the least. No one is saying there has to be an actual chandelier, but what happens on this stage could have been much better.
The music also leaves a lot to be desired. Musical director Adam C. Wright, who also handles piano duties, only has four other musicians to work with, on flute, piccolo, clarinet and percussion. This is a show that takes place in an opera. The music should be grand. The opening song “Melodie de Paris” has potential, but it whimpers musically. The vocals completely drown out the instruments on more than one occasion.
Yeston and Kopit aren’t wrong. The story of The Phantom of the Opera is fantastical and melodramatic. But, nothing says an adaptation needs to embrace that quality, or even embellish it even further into sensationally unbelievable territory. Yet, somewhere in there is a decent story about a misunderstood man and his struggle to find a place in the world where he won’t be treated as a freak. It’s a story that preaches understanding and acceptance much more than Webber’s version. This Phantom, for all his awkwardness, is much more relatable and sympathetic. Yet it still comes off as inept and way too emotionally needy.