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"Phantom" at Toby’s Baltimore: A True Original

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SHOW INFORMATION:  Through November 16.  Performance and price schedule varies.  All tickets include show and full course dinner.  Call 410.649.1660 or go to www.tobysdinnertheatre.com for tickets and more information.  

out of five.  2 hours, 5 minutes, not including intermission.  Stylized violence, use of a firearm.

 

In this age of fast, easy access media, it is becoming more and more noticeable which stories work in a variety of versions - the Cinderella story, for example.  Phantom of the Opera may just be one of those stories as well, considering that a third musical version of the story just opened (in a revival) at Toby's Dinner Theatre of Baltimore.  No, it is not the Lloyd Webber version, and it isn't the Yeston version so popular regionally.  It is, in fact, a completely original version commissioned by Toby herself some years ago, with a book written by Michael Tilford and music and lyrics by Tom Alonso, a Howard County native.  Perhaps the biggest reason that this version works as well as it does is that it takes the familiar, wraps it in a well-planned frame, and doesn't try too hard to replicate the other versions.  Will it make you forget the longest running show in Broadway history?  Probably not.  But will you leave satisfied?  Probably. 

This somewhat lavish production will leave your senses heightened.  David A. Hopkins' set design is very nice, with particularly nice detail on the opera boxes and the large chandeliers which flank the stage.  Other elements of the set are "set pieces" and look appropriately worn and utilitarian for an operatic repertory company.  Also, such things as the clever double use of court benches which transform into a Faustian pit add to the look of the show.  Lynn Joslin's lighting, including footlights and floor bound candelabras, are appropriately moody and sinister.  And, as is always the case with a Toby's show, the costumes are particularly lavish and nice to look at.  So much so this time around that three people are credited for their design - Larry Munsey, Kate Williams and Josh Singer.  Unfortunately, as has become the case more recently, the sound design, this time by Jimmy Engelkemier, is somewhat lacking.  There are the giggle inducing gunshot sound effects to begin with, but worse yet, the sheer volume of the orchestra and singers renders almost every group number incomprehensible, even taking into account that the operatic sections are sung in foreign languages. 

The score is pretty much what one would expect - a couple of mood creating creepy songs, a couple of catchy ditties and lush romantic ballads, all of which are, at the moment entirely appropriate and kind to the ears, but almost none of which stick with you even minutes after.  Still, it is a great relief to report that none of it sounds amateurish or "home-grown."  This is a polished piece.  A soaring ballad for Raoul, "Behind Every Door," and pretty ballad, "Leaving for the World," sung by Christine and Raoul, and the witty "That's the Way It's Done Around Here" for the changing of ownership of the opera house, all stand out, performance-wise.  I also think the closing number, "Haunted," would have been very interesting were the lyrics completely understandable. 

Maybe the biggest surprise for me was the book of the show, which utilizes a courtroom frame where various interested parties are called to stand in an investigation of the disappearance of Christine and Raoul, as well as reports of supernatural goings on with the "ghost."  It works well, and is most frequently easily (and cleverly) switched into and out of.  Another surprise is how much humor there is in the story as told by Mr. Tilford.  I don't recall ever really laughing at anything in other versions, but here the laughs - the intended ones, at least - are plentiful, especially in the considerably better first act.  The second act is a bit less successful, as it relies on grim and silly platitudes like "death walks tonight," and several mentions of things being "unmasked," even though most of the characters have never seen the Phantom.  It is then that the show gets a few unintentional giggles and more than a few eye rolls. 

The strongest things this production has going for it is the almost perfect casting and the truly wonderful direction.  The show is co-directed by Toby Orenstein and Kevin McAllister, who has made quite a splash locally as a performer in such shows as Ragtime, Dreamgirls and AIDA.  It is nice to see him spread his wings in this way.  These directors have managed to strike a careful balance between realism and the inherent melodrama of a romantic horror story.  True, there never really is a ton of tension - we are all so familiar with the story and we know the outcome from the opening scenes - but it is never less than interesting.  Best of all, each large group moment is directed with the same specificity and attention to purpose as the two and three person scenes. 

The entire supporting cast is up to the task that this version offers them, with a very talented ensemble that must sing opera, act opera and still be convincing in "real life" scenes.  I will admit I found the variety of accents they employ to be a bit annoying - some have no accent, others a proper British one and still others with a stereotypical French one. Standouts in the minor supporting roles include Byron Fenstermaker as the Inquistor of the trial, Dean Davis and Scean Flowers as the first owners of the opera and Laura Keena as Meg Giry, who is the very first Meg I've seen in any version that isn't murderously annoying!  Mr. McAllister pulls double duty as he is in the show, too, as the mysterious narrator-ish character known only as The Persian.  He sure can sing! 

Maya Goldman, a diminutive charmer, is pretty amazing as the Young Phantom, seen in an extended flashback scene as the Phantom explains how he came to be whom and what he is.  (The role is also played by Bailey Gabrish at some performances).  In this version, Madame Giry is a box attendant, though she still provides a connection between the world and the Phantom; Melynda Burdette plays the role well and is always interesting.  One wishes she had more to do. 

As the new owners of the company, Andrew Horn and Toby's newcomer Stuart Goldstone are a hoot.  They have impeccable timing, play worry and anguish with interesting variety and have charisma and chemistry to spare.  Jane C. Boyle's Carlotta is an absolute delight as she preens and huffs and puffs her way through scene after scene.  Her arrogance is a scream and she is particularly memorable in a "sing-off" with Christine, as they vie to play the same role at the same performance. 

Central, of course, the tale of the Phantom is the triangle of the Phantom, Christine and Raoul.  In this case, I'm afraid two out of three will have to suffice, as this production's weak link is exposed here.  Laura Wehrmeyer is delightful as Christine, with a truly angelic soprano voice, wide eyes and the ability to play the heroine without any of the schmaltz or overacting that would have been so easy to indulge in.  Instead, she plays it strong but scared, defiant but obedient, and always with a sense of humor so as not to get bogged down in the larger than life emotions of the piece.  She, too, is making her Toby's debut.  Let's hope this won't be the last we see of her!  Toby's regular, Russell Sunday is in fine form as Raoul, playing every bit the dashing hero and in-love sap that the role calls for.  Like Ms. Wehrmeyer, he plays it pretty straight, and his singing and emotion while doing so keep his Raoul from becoming plastic or wooden.  And his voice is thrilling here as well. 

Sadly, in the role of the Phantom, Braxton Peters is not a good fit here; odd, I suppose, considering he originated the role some years ago.  It is particularly disconcerting to say I didn't much care for his performance, as I have been a fan of this local acting legend for more than two decades.  Some of what doesn't work here is the fact that he is considerably older than Christine, which on more than one occasion caused some uncomfortable giggling in the audience, and perhaps adds another unwanted/unnecessary layer of meaning to this story.  And while there is no disputing his vocal prowess, it would be more than fair to say that his instrument isn't what it used to be, and he struggles somewhat with the Phantom song heavy second act.  His wide-eyed, "I'm a monster" stare down of the audience at the last minute of the show and again at the end of the curtain call isn't scary, it is funny.  Most troubling, though, is that he comes across as a grumpy grandfather figure more so than a menace to society.  He plays each angle very (too) carefully - anger, sadness, confusion and hurt - but none with enough oomph or nuance to make a lasting impression. 

Perhaps a more sinister Phantom would have made this good Phantom a great one.  But the rest of the cast and clever show by local artists make it worth the trip to Toby's.  It just goes to show that there is room in this world for more than one masked fiend.

 

PHOTOS by Kirstine Christiansen, courtesy of Toby's Dinner Theatre of Baltimore.  TOP to BOTTOM: The Phantom Company; Stuart Goldstone, Scean Flowers, Dean Davis and Andrew Horn in "That's the Way It's Done Around Here"; Jane C. Boyle as Carlotta; Braxton Peters and Laura Wehrmeyer as the Phantom and Christine at the Masquerade; Laura Wehrmeyer and Russell Sunday as Christine and Raoul; and Braxton Peters as The Phantom.


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