"Poor Wandering One" is among the loveliest of Gilbert and Sullivan's many lovely melodies, but you haven't really lived until you've heard Johnette Toye singing it -- as she does in Phantom of the Music Hall. Toye preens and staggers and makes her mouth into a dark, wide-open square from which emanates a cascade of extraordinary sound. This woman could sing the difficult coloratura parts beautifully if she wanted to -- and every now and then she does emit a tantalizingly perfect trill -- but for the most part she's too busy barging around like a drunken, demented and utterly delighted-with-itself duck to worry about aesthetics.
This isn't Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera, or even a takeoff on it, although the production is based on the same Gaston Leroux story. T.J. Mullin has transposed the events to an early twentieth-century English music hall, where a strange caped figure coaches a beautiful young ingenue into stardom, then abducts her and takes her to his underground lair. As in all performances at Heritage Square Music Hall, the plot -- while performed wholeheartedly and held together by the alliterative explanations of a dapper DP Perkins as the theater manager -- is only a pretext, the plain base on which the cast piles layers of frothy improvisation and all kinds of songs, some from the appropriate time period, and others that (I assume) the gang just bloody well feels like singing.
As I watched, I kept pondering how I'd describe the scene to someone from another country. The hijinks at Heritage Square are both quintessentially Western and quintessentially American, but it's not an America that anyone overseas would recognize from the news or the stereotypes. There are no guns. There's no judgmentalism, religiosity or swaggering. This is just-folks America, funny and irreverent and unpretentious. The people in the audience aren't the repressed suburban types who attend regular dinner theater. They are grandmas and grandpas, kids, groups of young guys, pregnant women. Working people and mountain folk. There are some who look like the hero of My Name Is Earl, and others who look the way Earl would after he'd cleaned up his act and gone to law school. The cast knows exactly how to work this audience -- whether playing things (relatively) straight, communicating skepticism with the arch of an eyebrow, engaging in direct dialogue or extending a piece of business for long, long seconds, seeming to wrap it up, and then drawing it out some more.
All regulars know that the first few rows are dangerous territory; Annie Dwyer trolls them for men during every performance. On the night I attended, she seemed obsessed with hair, fluffing out tufts, massaging bald heads and adorning them with sticky red kisses, shaping a set of horns while her molting feather boa flew around her. Finally, she came upon long-haired Phil and was sent into ecstasies. She pulled off the rubber band holding his ponytail. She fluffed and caressed and applied the boa until his hair stood up in a staticky corona. The pretext for all this was a song called "You'd Be Surprised," and Phil certainly seemed so. Mullin, who plays the Phantom and the Phantom's shy alter ego, Eric, picked out a grandmotherly woman seated in the sixth row and proceeded to insist that she was his mother, serenading her with "I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen." She seemed startled, then flattered, and she gave him a big hug when he was done.
Other funny bits include Scott Koop and Alex Crawford as the comedy duo Black and Decker, involved in nonsense multiplication on a chalkboard. (Except that it's twelve pence to a shilling, fellows.) And a couple of barbershop numbers: "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park" and "A Nose Full of Nickels." And -- on a par with Toye's show-stopping "Poor Wandering One" -- Mullin singing "Have Some Madeira, M'Dear" to an unconscious Toye, who's lolling on the sofa. Between verses, Mullin works with her supine body, placing her in various poses, attempting seduction, proving himself the master of the extended comic pause and the endless, agonizing fumble.
The ingenue is Kira Cauthorn, who's appropriately graceful, though her singing could be prettier. Music director N. Randall Johnson tickles the ivories with infectious glee and gives us a wonderfully funny song called "I'm My Own Grandpa." Most of these performers have been working together for years. They breathe in sync, and the audience breathes with them, which ensures that the delight they take in their work resonates on both sides of the proscenium.
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