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Review: PHANTOM Dazzles At Dutch Apple

It's a story worthy of a musical: Composer Maury Yeston (GRAND HOTEL) and playwright Arthur Kopit (WINGS) are working on a musical, when, in London, Andrew Lloyd Webber announces he's working on the very same story. Financial backers race out of the Americans' show to shower the creator of CATS with production money, and the rest, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, is history (to the point of occasional "is THAT still playing?" groans). But our heroes bided their time and finally premiered their own version, PHANTOM, in Houston, and it's been playing since.

It's at Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre right now, where those who love the story written in 1910 by Gaston Leroux can see the lesser-known (and in many respects superior) version directed by Brian Enzman. Like the original novel, it's full of underground lakes and boats, and a chandelier falls, and a scary man under the Paris Opera House pursues a beautiful girl who sings. Unlike a certain other production, the scale is more human, the story is more about real love (both romantic and familial) than just about obsession, and there's a real feeling of being inside, of being backstage, at the theatre. The smaller scale makes the show more realistic, less fantastic, than the show that went to Broadway. It's also more operatic; rather than sounding like another Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, its songs have unique qualities and are much closer to sounding like French music at the time the novel was written.

It helps the music not only that JP Meyer, Dutch Apple's musical director, is capable of bringing big sound out of a small pit, but that the central characters, Christine and Erik, the Phantom, are played by Maxwell Porterfield (Christine) and Troy Bruchwalski, both of whom have classical vocal training, as does much of the rest of the cast. When operatic music is performed by people who can sing it, little is better. A mostly great score, a top-notch pit whose sound is filling the house, and real singers whose voices carry over that, is everything you want in a musical about opera. Bruchwalski, particularly, proves to be a powerhouse baritone.

The couple taking over the theatre, diva La Carlotta (Andrea Spencer Christiansen) and Alain Cholet (John Anker Bow), her impresario husband, are the comic pair of the show, and they feel very much like the Thenardiers in LES MISERABLES in their grasping, scheming comedy. It's perhaps no surprise that you've likely seen the pair as the Thenardiers previously at Dutch Apple. The star soprano who can't sing and her producer husband who can't produce are true delights once again on the Dutch Apple stage.

John P. White's lavish costumes are as precise as ever, and the set design by Dominic Lau is one of the most elaborate at Dutch Apple lately, and worthy of note. They combine to give the production a real feeling of being backstage at an old theatre, of stumbling over old props and costumes, of finding those old rooms you didn't know were there. Lau's stage set proclaims "haunted theatre" to anyone who looks at it. This is one of the best sets recently done in the area.

This writer has seen this version of PHANTOM before, and hadn't been impressed. The right cast and the right sets are everything to this show, and this production is indeed impressive. It's also particularly enjoyable, even if you don't already know all the tunes and words the way you do even if you haven't even seen the "other" version. You'll enjoy them when you hear them, and some of them will indeed stick with you when you leave the theatre.

Moments to look for especially include La Carlotta's side-splitting "This Place is Mine," in which she attempts to tell her haunted theatre to behave, Erik's "Where in the World," and Christine's performance at the bistro where she's discovered by the opera community. Christine also shines in the second act in "My True Love," and Carriere, the former Opera manager (John Payonk), delivers an astonishing eleven o'clock number, "You Are My Own," just before the end.

Could anything possibly be wrong with this show? Well... yes. For all the lovely songs just noted, there are a few that aren't bad but just don't fit. While every show needs a bit of levity, and while PHANTOM and its original story are hardly devoid of romance, the first act number, "Who Could Ever Have Dreamed," between Christine and love interest Philippe, simply doesn't fit in the show. It's a perky, dancing-down-the-boulevard-in-tap-shoes Gene Kelly number that seems to have swung in from a 1950's musical comedy. And the show was produced and revised in 1991, after another hit musical based on a French novel, LES MISERABLES, hit the stage. Perhaps that's why La Carlotta is so Madame Thenardier. Perhaps that's why the story of Erik and his mother feels so, well, the story of Fantine. And perhaps it's why it feels like the show has five songs all being reused in various ways throughout the acts. But these issues will most likely be very secondary, to most audiences, to the spectacle on stage.

When I saw this show the first time some years ago, elsewhere, I thought that if I ever saw it again, it might be too soon. It was most definitely that production, because, having seen the Dutch Apple production, I'd be happy to see it again before the end of the run. In fact, I'm looking forward to the possibility. Whether you know the Broadway "other" version, or whether you don't, the Yeston and Kopit PHANTOM is worth your time.

At Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre through September 24, and well worth the trip if you like a good telling of the story, or if you appreciate some quite spectacular singing in a musical. Visit dutchapple.com for tickets and information.



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