Did you miss the road-show Phantom of the Opera? No problem: The Country Dinner Playhouse is presenting a far more spirited version of the classic horror tale, the excellent Arthur Kopit/Maury Yeston Phantom. For my money, it's a better telling of the story than Andrew Lloyd Webber's--or, for that matter, any of the television or film adaptations, except perhaps the very first Lon Chaney silent horror film.

In Kopit's version, the hero is a far more sympathetic character. But then, this Phantom is a melodrama rather than a horror story. The emphasis is not on madness but on eccentricity--the sensitive soul driven underground by the harshness of the world. When this Phantom strikes out, it is only to protect himself from a society far more evil than he is.

In this recounting, the lovely Christine is discovered singing in the street by Count Phillipe, who sends her to his friend Gerard Carriere, the director of the Paris Opera. Unfortunately, Carriere is fired before Christine arrives, and the new managers--a lousy diva named La Carlotta and her husband--will brook no threat to the diva's stardom. Meanwhile, Erik, aka "the Phantom," has heard Christine sing and has fallen in love with her voice. He offers to train her, with the stipulation that she tell no one about her lessons or her teacher. Christine agrees. When she is ready to debut, he has her sing in a competition at a famous cafe so that La Carlotta cannot hide Christine from the world. A great success, she is given a role in an opera.

But La Carlotta never rests, and she soon hatches a heinous plot to disgrace Christine on her opening night. She gives the girl a witches' brew that cracks her voice and brings down the house. Then Erik kidnaps the fainting Christine and takes her to his lair, where he intends to keep her.

The surprise ending in this version--the revelation of Erik's history and Christine's response to him--is what makes it superior to the others. This Phantom is more romantic, more intelligent and more understandable than the other monsters.

Phantom of the Opera endures because it is really a tragic variation on Beauty and the Beast. It's about what happens if Beauty fails to love the Beast or if the Beast gives himself over to revenge. It's about the Beast as a human being whose physical deformity--which no magic can transform--casts him out of society. As a result of society's disdain, he loses his grasp on right and wrong.

But although Erik's neurosis blinds him from morality, the blindness is temporary: He needs Christine to see the man beneath the deformity. The universal appeal of the story springs from the need to be "seen"--loved, understood, appreciated--despite the fortunes of the flesh. After all, Erik is a genius of music, a poetic soul who grasps William Blake's spiritual vision at a personal level.

This is heavy material, but the music and the action of the Kopit/Yeston version fit hand-in-glove. And with a splendid professional cast, Phantom even retains some of its original mystery. Although Tamra Hayden's sweet voice is equal (most of the time) to the considerable demands of the score, her acting recommends her even more. In "My True Love," she manages to persuade the audience as well as the Phantom that she loves him enough to look at him. And when she runs screaming from the vision, we take it as betrayal. Keith Rice's rich, clear voice gives the Phantom power and presence. His acting occasionally crosses the line between genuine feeling and self-conscious histrionics, but basically he offers a sound, strong reading of the character.

Director Bill McHale moves his actors around the small stage in graceful, swirling action, using every corner to advantage. McHale also appears as Carriere, giving weight and resonance to the role and to the songs. Eugene Texas gives a witty, biting performance as the opera's interloping new owner, Cholet, and makes a stunningly funny duo with Dena Olsted-Rice as the terrific comic monster La Carlotta--a diva with a wicked difference.

Phantom has greater appeal than most musicals. While Webber's music was hypnotic (I hate being manipulated in the theater), the Kopit/ Yeston score is varied, melodic and full of color. Phantom makes excellent family entertainment, with just a little more substance than style to recommend it.


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