The novel Phantom of the Opera was written by Gaston LeRoux in 1911. Although it has inspired several films, most people know the story from the massive, windy Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, with its throbbing score and astonishing special effects. Before that version hit, playwright Arthur Kopit and songwriter Maury Yeston had created their own Phantom; any hope of a Broadway production, however, was dashed by Webber's huge commercial success. Eventually, the Kopit-Yeston musical became a television miniseries, and it premiered on the stage in 1991 -- in Houston.
I like this Phantom better than Webber's. The plot remains pure Victoriana, a mix of Gothic and Grand Guignol, but it seems less empty. The Victorians were fascinated with otherness, with deformities such as those suffered by the Elephant Man, with people of other races and cultures. They also loved magic and the supernatural. LeRoux's Phantom, who has exiled himself to the cavernous rooms beneath the Paris Opera House because of the hideous ugliness of his face, fits neatly into these obsessions. He's also one of a parade of monstrous but heart-tormented lovers -- part evil and part good -- from Beauty's fairy-tale Beast to Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Kopit and Yeston place more focus on the Phantom's inner life than does Webber, and they give a more plausible explanation of his love for the beautiful singer, Christine, in his deep need for music. They also provide more gore. Yeston's lyrics are uninspired, but his music -- a seamless mix of opera, music hall and musical-comedy rhythms and melodies -- is fluid and sometimes beautiful, from the pure joy of "As You Would Love Paree" to the tender strains of "You Are Music."
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The first act contains some lively, hummable songs and a fair amount of humor as the narcissistic diva, La Carlotta, takes over the opera house with her husband and plans to star in every production. The second act, when the Phantom has Christine in his lair and the law is threatening to close in on him, is far more dramatic -- and edges into melodrama.
Country Dinner Playhouse does an admirable job with this piece. Randy St. Pierre is a strong Phantom -- even though, despite his mask, he comes across as more handsome leading man than monster. He could also make the Phantom's inner anguish more evident in the early scenes; for instance, he seems remarkably sanguine about his first murder -- the rapid dispatching of a hapless costumer who has wandered into his realm. Tracy Venner-Warren has a good singing voice and turns in a polished performance as Christine, though she never charmed me as the character should. In a wonderfully over-the-top performance, Dee Etta Rowe, playing La Carlotta, pounces on every scene she enters and carries it off squealing between her teeth. Carlotta is supposed to be a terrible singer, but -- ironically, and even though she deliberately flattens notes and sings off-key -- Rowe alone among the performers seems to have the operatic voice some of the songs require. Greg Price is a hoot as Carlotta's smarmy husband. And perhaps the best performance of the evening is that of Craig Lundquist, an outwardly calm Carriere, whose tamped-down passion is finally released in a full-throated baritone when he sings "You Are My Own." There's so much talent in the chorus that you wish each of these people had been given a solo. Natalie Jensen, in the small role of the Phantom's mother, does very well with hers, and Jeremy Sortore reveals a lovely voice in the brief phrases he has to sing as Oberon.
It's hard to pull off the stunts required by the violent, murky second act of Phantom in a theater in the round, and between occasional missteps and the sentimentality of the script, I got a little restless. Still, I found myself tearing up at the climax, and I left the playhouse with Yeston's music singing in my mind.