It's not Lloyd Webber, but this 'Phantom' musical has depth and welcome wit

June 29, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

Around the time Andrew Lloyd Webber was creating "Phantom of the Opera," Arthur Kopit and Maury Yeston were creating a version of their own, called simply "Phantom."

For a while, this smaller-scale "Phantom" got lost in the wake of Lloyd Webber's mega-musical. But three years ago, Kopit and Yeston's adaptation of the 1911 Gaston Leroux horror novel premiered in Houston, and since then it has had numerous productions, the latest of which is that of the Maryland Arts Festival at Towson State University.

Besides scale, the most obvious difference between the two lies in the strength of Kopit's plot, which is hardly surprising since Kopit is an accomplished playwright whose scripts include "Indians," "Wings," the musical "Nine" (with Yeston) and the translation of Ibsen's "Ghosts" recently produced at Center Stage.

In "Phantom," Kopit has improved Leroux's story in two waysboth clearly demonstrated at Towson. First, he has added or enhanced subplots that contribute to the logic of the storyline and increase the characters' motivation. Second, he has tossed in a welcome -- of humor.

Here's an example of Kopit's logical storytelling: After offering to give singing lessons to the heroine, Christine, the Phantom explains why he wears a mask.

Claiming to be a renowned singer, he tells her he wants her to be his only student and concealing his identity will ward off others.

AThe subplots are similarly well thought-out -- one concerning the Phantom's parentage and the other expanding the rivalry between Christine and the diva Carlotta.

Carolyn Black-Sotir is a hoot as the under-talented, over-affected Carlotta, a role that provides much of the show's humor. "My God, the place is haunted," the Phantom says after hearing her sing. "Her voice is worse than my face."

And, Richard Potter's Phantom has a singing voice sufficiently rich and supple to lend authority to his viewpoint. Beth Weber has a tougher task as Christine, whose singing must show the benefits of the Phantom's tutelage as the evening progresses. Weber conveys this by replacing an initial shrillness with more dulcet tones. Also worthy of mention is Braxton J. Peters in a role added by Kopit -- that of Gerard Carriere, the Phantom's protector. Peters not only sings this role beautifully, he also elicits empathy for the character's emotional weaknesses.

As to the music itself, Yeston's score can't compete with the lushness of Lloyd Webber's. But since this is a traditional book musical and not a Lloyd Webber operatic extravaganza, it fares just fine, exhibiting melodic variety reminiscent of everything from liturgical music to Jerome Kern, Tin Pan Alley and Sigmund Romberg.

Furthermore, under Alan Fox's stage direction, Michael Decker's musical direction and the choreography of Tom Polum, the cast handles these varied demands with choral work and stage movement that are so smooth, they compensate for set designer Gregg Hillmar's derivative and lackluster scenery.

This production happens to be one of three non-Lloyd Webber "Phantoms" currently in the area, and the subject is getting tired -- at least for this critic. While the story has some of the same appeal as "Beauty and the Beast," this beast isn't just ugly, he's a murderer. OK, maybe he had an unhappy childhood (according to Kopit). Or maybe he's misunderstood. Better yet, maybe it's time some of this musical theater talent was let loose on another subject.

THEATER REVIEW

What: "Phantom"

Where: Towson State University, Fine Arts Center, Osler and Cross Campus drives

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays (no performance tomorrow), matinees 3 p.m. July 17 and July 24

Tickets: $16 and $18

$ Call: (410) 830-2787

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