Effective direction drives Phantom to beauty at Boulder's Dinner Theatre
Playwright Arthur Kopit and composer Maury Yeston were still putting together their Phantom when Phantom of the Opera, the Andrew Lloyd Webber juggernaut, trundled onto the scene with its thunderous music, grandiose special effects and falling chandelier. Phantom's backers quickly vanished, as did any chance of a Broadway opening. But Phantom's creators carried on, and the result was a far smaller-scale production than Webber's, with suppler music, less spectacle and more emphasis on the agonized humanity of the Phantom himself — though all the Gothic impulses animating Gaston LeRoux's original novel are still present. That means you get surging emotions, improbable plot devices, great gusts of melodrama and a deep fascination with the darkness within the human soul.
The plot: Beautiful Christine's beautiful soprano is discovered by the womanizing Count Philippe de Chandon, who secures her a place at the Paris Opera. But the organization has just been taken over by the Cholets, a nasty, scheming couple who have fired faithful long-term manager Carriere, and intend to use the opera to showcase the ghastly voice of self-infatuated Carlotta Cholet. Poor Christine ends up in the costume shop rather than on stage. But deep within the gray, imposing edifice lurks Erik, with his cohort of writhing lost souls. Music is his only solace, and having once heard Christine sing, he promptly offers her lessons. The first of these gives rise to one of the loveliest and most charming duets of the evening, "You Are Music."
While the first act is a lively mix of drama and comedy, the second is far darker and speeds toward a tragic ending. Erik seizes Christine, and the action moves into his underground lair, a kind of Hades in which Christine becomes a wandering Persephone. Scott Beyette's direction of this Boulder's Dinner Theatre production is so effective that resonant comparisons like this come easily to mind: Seeing Maggie Sczekan's Christine asleep on her white bed, you can't help thinking of the tranced Juliet awaiting Romeo in the crypt. The love story between Christine and Erik stirs memories of a host of terrifying lovers: the physically deformed, like Quasimodo and Beauty's Beast, and those who can visit their beloved only under the cover of night, from Cupid slipping into Psyche's bedroom because she's forbidden to see his face to Buffy's Angel, whom the light of day would literally kill. These stories carry the power they do because they illustrate something primal and universal: that we can never really know our lovers, and that love itself is as fearful and dangerous as it is alluring, as likely to lead us into darkness as to save our souls. The point is driven home by the power of Markus Warren's rendition of "My Mother Bore Me" — and, yes, the song is quoting that rapturous and transcendent seer William Blake.
Musical-comedy ingenues are usually hard to like — pretty, simpering puppets whose sweet, shy gestures resemble nothing you'd see from an actual breathing woman now that Princess Diana is gone. Sczekan is not of this ilk, however. Her gestures are pretty, but they're imbued with a glistening sincerity. She has the kind of rich, expressive voice you want to listen to all night, and all the range and musicality this operatic (or at least operetta-ish) score demands. The girl can act, too, with subtlety and feeling: Witness the ambivalence she shows when de Chandon courts her, and her reluctant and ever-growing fascination with the Phantom. This is a dazzling, breakout performance, more than a match for Warren's powerful depiction of the Phantom.
Impressive as they are, Warren and Sczekan's performances don't exist in a vacuum. They're supported by clean, professional staging, a cunningly contrived set, elegant costumes, and a group of poised and experienced actors who know when to move into the limelight and when to step back and let the principals have the stage. Other noteworthy turns come from Joanie Brosseau as a comical Carlotta; she couldn't fake Carlotta's hideous singing without a pretty impressive set of pipes and excellent vocal control. Brian Norber has been a mainstay of this company for years; I've seen him tottering around the stage in high, high heels doing a drag turn in The Producers, as a wolfish Music Man and as the romantic lead in Singing in the Rain. His touching Gerard Carriere — quietly dignified through much of the play, breaking down emotionally at the end — may be the highlight of his multifarious career.
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