Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The bones of Phantom's story are much the same as in Lloyd Weber's version. The Phantom is both a musical genius and a monster who inhabits the lower depths of the Paris Opera House. He discovers a young singer of exquisite voice, and grooms her for leading roles in the opera. In both versions, the Phantom is fixated on the power of truly beautiful music, and the perfection he hears in Christine Daaé's voice transfers to a deepening love for her. Christine also draws the affection of the Count de Chandon, a major patron of the opera. A transfer of ownership puts the vain but untalented diva Carlotta in control of the Opera, giving herself all the leading parts. The Phantom strikes out to right this affront to his artistic soul. When his demands go unmet, he unleashes a reign of terror, resulting in murders, ruined careers, and the fall of a chandelier. Ultimately, though, his impossible love for Christine is the Phantom's downfall.
The above synopsis could serve either musical version. However, Yeston and Kopit make the Phantom a far more sympathetic character, and imbue his relationship with Christine with tenderness. We actually witness their first meeting and the shift of feelings, on both their parts, from a focus on the music to affection for one another. Yeston and Kopit also provide an origins story that reveals the Phantom's childhood and parentage, and explains in a far more satisfying way how he came to his current straits. Here, he has long lived in relative peace beneath the Opera House under the protection of the former Director (before being ousted by Carlotta), Gérard Carrière. This Phantom is not depicted as a ghost or supernatural force (as superstitious members of the opera company believe him to be), but as a man deeply scarred by the bad luck to be born with a hideously deformed face. Significantly, in Phantom, both Christine and Carrière call the Phantom by his given name, Erik, giving him a much more human face to the audience.
Yeston has written a lovely, romantic score for Phantom. After an overture that sets a tone both gothic and romantic, the show opens with the innocent Christine singing "Melodie de Paris" to passers-by on the streets for spare change. It is here that the Count Phillippe de Chandon first hears her and, impressed by her dulcet tones, refers her to his friend, Carrière at the Opera for voice lessons, spurring her voice toward greater joy that represents not only the pure beauty of music, but also is a window into her character. This opening allows us to begin with the gaiety of the milieu, and the hopefulness of Christine's heart, drawing us into the story in ways that a more ponderous approach does not.
Other highlights of the score include "Where in the World," in which Erik declares his need to experience musical perfection; the beautiful "Home," which combines Christine's joy and wonder at finding a place in the world of the opera with Erik's ecstasy upon first hearing Christine's pure voice; "You Are Music," sung by Erik and Christine as their devotion to music draws them into one another's heart; "My True Love," Christine's pledge to Erik that her love for him will overcome any adversity, even his deformity; and "You Are My Own," sung by Erik and his life-long protector Carrière. Carlotta has a wonderful comic number, "This Place is Mine," while "The Story of Erik" is a poignant ballet that depicts Erik's birth and childhood. "Who Could Ever Have Dreamed Up You?" is a more standard fare musical number for Christine and Count Phillippe, catchy but passionless, which perfectly suits the temperature of their relationship. One would have hoped for a stronger act two opening than "Without Your Music," which seems to diminish the fire of Erik's feelings, but overall, this is a strong score with songs that reveal character, advance the plot, and linger in memory.
William Gilness is wonderful as the Phantom. He has a gorgeous, full voice, and is fully convincing as the sensitive soul pushed by circumstances to the life of a ghoul. He is matched by Courtney Groves as Christine. Her voice is crystalline and strong, and her acting abilities make us believe that Christine is innocent, but strong. Her heart is good, not simple. Alan Sorenson brings a gravitas and a soaring voice to the role of Gérard Carrière, conveying the anguish of buried feelings. Angela Walberg makes a delightfully nasty Carlotta, who will stop at nothing to put her star atop the Opera's universe, and Carl Schoenborn is spot on as her doting husband. Riley McNutt is less convincing as Phillippe. The count is purported to be a first order Parisian ladies' man, but comes across more boyish than worldly.
The ensemble bring strong vocal power to choral numbers and perform the modest dance pieces with grace. Michael Gruber's choreography enhances the production, but Phantom could not be called a dance musical, with the exception of the lovely dance for Erik's mother in "The Story of Erik," touchingly performed by Elly Stahlke. Karen Weber's direction draws us from the show's opening through the continuous narrative, keeping the human relationships, rather than the horror story, at the center.
The costumes are outstanding, making the most of the color and glamour of turn of the century Paris. The set design is functional, with moving staircases to create the exterior and interior of the Opera House, the Phantom's chamber, and even an idyllic park. High caliber lighting and sound design skillfully serve the show's narrative and emotional needs.
Why are there two musical Phantoms, you may wonder. Back in the 1980s, Maury Yeston, fresh from a Tony win for his score for Nine, was approached by Geoffrey Holder, the Tony-winning director of The Wiz. Holder had purchased rights to adapt Gaston Leroux's novel "The Phantom of the Opera" into a musical that he planned to direct. He persuaded Yeston to write the score, and also recruited playwright Arthur Kopit, the author of Nine's book. The team was making progress when Andrew Lloyd Weber announced the launch of his own musical Phantom. How could this be? Holder had the rights! It turned out that Gaston's novel was already in the public domain in Great Britain, and in fact would do so in the United States in just two more years. Lloyd Weber's show was a smash in London and the still-running Broadway production opened in 1988. It looked like Yeston, Kopit, and Holder had missed their chance.
However, after seeing the Lloyd Weber show, Yeston became convinced that he and Kopit had a far different approach to the material and that there was room for two Phantom musicals. In 1991 their show, titled simply Phantom, premiered at Theater under the Stars in Houston. Although it has yet to run on Broadway, since its opening there have been over 1,000 productions of Phantom.
Up till now, I had missed those 1,000+ productions. I admit to not being the biggest fan of The Phantom of the Opera, and so was happily rewarded by Artistry's production of Phantom which, for my money, is the better show. The arc of its storytelling is more complete, it has songs that delight rather than impress, and most of all, conveys more heart, less horror. There is far less spectacle, and it is not missed. Instead, we have the pleasure of a musical theater piece that takes us behind the veil of horror and the vanity of divas to discover a touchingly human story.
Phantom continues through November 15, 2015, in the Schneider Theater at Artistry, Bloomington Center for the Arts, 1800 West Old Shakopee Road, Bloomington, MN. Tickets: $33.00 - $36.00; Seniors, age 62 and up: $29:00 - $32.00; Age 25 and younger: $24.00 - $27.00. Student Rush for unsold seats, $15.00, available 15 minutes before the performance - cash only. For tickets call 952-563-8375 or go to artistrymn.org
Music and Lyrics: Maury Yeston; Book: Arthur Kopit; Director: Karen Weber; Music Director and Conductor: Anita Ruth; Choreographer: Michael Gruber; Set Design: Benjamin Olsen; Costume Design: Ed Gleeman; Lighting Design: Mike Grogan; Fight Choreographer: Meredith Larson; Sound Design: Chris Moen; Sound Engineer: John Acarregui; Properties Design: Sarah Holmberg; Production Stage Manager: Sarah E. Perron; Production Manager/Technical Director: Chris Carpenter; Assistant Stage Manager: Samantha Diekman
Cast: Seth Bell (Young Erik/acolyte dancer), Kyler Chase (Minister of Culture/Young Carrière), Nathan Croner (Jean-Claude), William Gilness (The Phantom), Courtney Groves (Christine Dae'e), Ryan Halliday (Buquet, Oberon), Siri Hammond (Florence), Ryan London Levin (Inspector Ledoux), Brandon Lund (acolyte dancer), Riley McNutt (Philippe, the Count de Chandon), Madison Palmer (acolyte dancer), Brianna Regan (acolyte dancer), Nicole Riebe (Fleure), France A. Rogers (Ballet Master/acolyte dancer), Carl Schoenborn (Cholet), Alan Sorenson (Gérard Carrière), Elly Stahlke (Belladova dancer), Angela Walberg (Carlotta), Sommer Walters (Flora)
Ensemble: Corey de Danann, Molly Jo Hall, Becca Hart, Amanda Schnabel, and Mike Tober