Though Phantom, which has reportedly had over 1,000 productions since its 1991 premiere in Houston, has probably been seen by more people than Yeston's Broadway musicals, it may be less known to theater fans than Nine, Grand Hotel and Titanic which all had healthy runs on Broadway and all won Tonys as Best Musical and Best Score for Yeston. Phantom's lush and romantic score should not be overlooked in a retrospective of the composer's work – like his other scores, it incorporates conventions of late 19th and early 20th century popular and classical music into charming and substantive yet accessible songs. It's well sung in this production, which is under the musical direction of Eugene Dizon. Lara Filip convinces us her Christine could indeed be a successful opera singer. Her Phantom, Peter Oyloe, who burst onto the Chicago scene a few months ago as the untalkative Alan Strang in Equus, shows us that he can not only talk, he can sing – in a booming yet controlled baritone. The supporting cast is consistently strong, including Naomi Landman as Carlotta, Daniel Waters as her husband Cholet, Kenneth Z. Kendall as Christine's other love interest and Jim Sherman as the Paris Opera House manager, Carrière. The only disappointment in the musical performance is that Yeston's rich score seems to need more than the five-piece orchestra provided here in order to receive a truly fair hearing.
Porchlight continues to expand its production values – the elaborate sets by Robert Martin go way beyond the sorts of impressive but all-purpose unit sets they've used in the past. The costumes by John Nasca are as stunning as you'd expect to see in the high society of late-19th century Paris. Still, the limitations of the black box, three-quarter-round space at the Theatre Building hold them back. Their version of the crashing chandelier that ends act one had the light fixture slowly creeping toward the cast from a nearly horizontal angle while the Phantom's murder of Carlotta by electrocution was just lost. The story's movement from the bright light of the outside world into the darkness and enclosure of the Phantom's underground lair – a concept explained to the opening audience in a talkback by Mr. Yeston – was not fully realized by lighting designer Justin Wardell, who was undoubtedly hamstrung by the limits of the venue.
Kopit's approach to Leroux's story differs from previous efforts in that it brings the backstory to the forefront and creates a rather plausible explanation for the seemingly supernatural events of the tale. We're given a rationale, if not a complete justification, for the Phantom's actions and he's seen as a sad, reclusive loner rather than a real menace, even though he kills a couple of people. In fact, the opera company seems more concerned with backstage politics than the Phantom's threats, particularly in the first act in which Carlotta and husband Cholet gain control of the Opera in order to give the Diva Carlotta center stage. Focus is split between the rather ordinary comic scenes of Carlotta and Cholet, Christine's introduction to the Phantom, and her budding romance with the Count de Chandon. The mix of comedy, suspense and love interest seems out of whack and none of these motifs really drives the action very much. Act two, more focused and mostly concerned with Christine's abduction and the backstory of the Phantom's childhood, is a little tighter, but in total, the piece lacks the suspense of other versions of the story and fails to develop characters enough to care much about their fate. Director Walter Stearns doesn't find a solution to the dilemma Kopit's given him ... perhaps there is none.
I'm no great fan of the Lloyd Webber Phantom of the Opera, but I'll give it credit for committing to being a great big gothic horror story with the traditional bland hero who saves the damsel from the monster plus some interspersed bits of comic relief. Credit is due to Kopit and Yeston for trying to humanize the monster, but they didn't entirely manage to tame the beast of making it a fully satisfying musical.
Phantom will be performed Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoons at 2:30 p.m. through November 11, 2007, at Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 W. Belmont. For tickets, call the Theatre Building Chicago's box office at 773-327-5252 or visit www.theatrebuildingchicago.org.