Saturday, November 25, 2017

From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2, Column 43, A Review: "Phantom" (Downtown Cabaret)

By James V. Ruocco

In the Maury Yeston/Arthur Kopit musical "Phantom," it is the story of a disfigured man who lives below the Paris Opera House that is the centerpiece of this traditional musical and not its crashing chandelier or foggy underground lair that spins the story into motion.
Instead, this musical telling, based on the Gaston Leroux novel "Le Fantome de l'Opera," is simple and direct in execution and not controlled by grandiose automated trappings, special effects and tons of extravagant scenery. And that is what separates it from the opulent Broadway and West End production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "The Phantom of the Opera." This "Phantom" dances to an entirely different tune.

Here, the emphasis is on story, a "book story" reminiscent of the valued, typical Broadway musical. It is as powerful and dramatic as any of the other "Phantom" stories, but here, you get much more emphasis on characterization, the subterranean life of the Phantom and a complete back story on how he was conceived (his dark story from birth to adulthood is reenacted in Act II), which heightens the musical's angst and emotion. The characters, are pretty much the same, with the exception of the Count Philippe de Chandon (charmingly played here by John Hahn) who, surprisingly, is not as relevant to the actual story as he was in the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.

Regardless, this "Phantom" is exquisite, explosive, bewitching and handsomely executed. Everything about it clicks from the set, sound, costume and lighting design to the direction, the choreography, the musical direction and the central performances, all of which are intuitively performed and beautifully sung.
It is yet another major achievement for the Downtown Cabaret Theatre whose compassion for musical theater was evidenced earlier this year with "Spring Awakening," "In the Heights" and most recently, "The Hunchback of Notre Dame."
With "Phantom," the brilliance continues.
Just don't go in expecting to hear "Think of Me" and "The Music of the Night."
Those songs can be heard on Broadway, in London or on tour.
This "Phantom" musical is more varied, complex and intimate.

An obvious fan of musical theater, composer/lyricist Maury Yeston knows exactly what works and what doesn't work. With "Phantom," he offers theatergoers beautiful, stirring melodies, character-driven solos, unbridled musical emotions and stories, fiercely passionate choral numbers and other musical treats that drive the plot reverently as characters stand proud, their voices rich in song and conviction.
Yes, this "Phantom" is an homage, in part, to operetta. It is also an homage to old fashioned, romantic musicals of yesteryear. But there is no copycatting. From the start, his "Phantom" has plenty of heart and soul. It knows exactly where it is going, how it going to be played out musically and how it is going to end. The songs fulfill a purpose. Nothing is thrown in just to give a principal character another song to sing or simply to extend the musical an additional fifteen or twenty minutes. Here, as with "Nine" and "Titanic," Yeston's many musical numbers are precise and genuinely focused.

In turn, the "Phantom" score unfolds with charm, pistache and verve. It's romantic and beguiling when it is meant to be. It is eerie and moody when it must be. It enchants and cajoles when the mood is playful and rapturous. It also complements the plot machinations and wondrous inventions of  Arthur Kopit's book without any forced calculation, which, often is the case, with book musicals. But not this one this one.
Standouts include "Melodie de Paris," "Home," "Without Your Music," "Where in the World," "You are Music," "You Are My Own," "My True Love" and "Dressing for the Night."

Musical director Clay Zambo is the perfect fit for "Phantom." He is an exceptional musician who knows exactly how to make Yeston's musical score resonate, fascinate and dance with the magic, pulse, danger, angst and emotion intended by the composer/lyricist. He also surrounds himself with a first-class orchestral team (Josh Sette, Gabe Nappi, Charles Casimiro, McNeil Johnson, Mark Dennis, Frank Devito, Brendan Stavris) who give tremendous life and importance to the "Phantom" musical score. And under his tutelage, the entire cast unite and sing in perfect pitch without ever once missing a single beat, pulse, note or piece of important music. Well done, Mr. Zambo.

Staging "Phantom" is Eli Newsom who DCT directorial credits include "A Chorus Line" and "Evita." Newsom also served as musical director earlier this year for both "Spring Awakening" and "In the Heights."
Under Newsom's direction, this "Phantom" is profoundly moving, honest, vulnerable and stirring. Yes, the story is familiar. Yes, most of the audience knows how things are going to end. Yet despite this familiarity, Newsom makes you forget all of that with his blazingly honest telling and his solid grasp of Kopit's book, its form and structure. And naturally, his appreciation and understanding of Yeston's musical score and how it is to be shaped, staged and performed on the Downtown Cabaret Theatre stage.

There's plenty to enjoy and applaud here as Newsom brings the thrill of immediacy to this "Phantom" with careful attention paid to atmosphere, locale, period, character interaction and exchanges, shifts in plotting, the danger of discovery, horror and that big moment when the title character takes finally off his mask to show Christine his disfigured face. It's all very intimate and intriguing and the audience and the on-stage cast are with Newsom every step of the way.

The performances are spectacular.
In Max J. Swarner, Newsom has found an extraordinary actor and singer to portray Erik, the Phantom. Possessing one of the most beautiful male voices ever heard in musical theater today, Swarner takes hold of the many songs Yeston has created for his character and puts his own personal stamp on every one of them. There is beauty and passion in his voice, coupled with a deep, dark and stirring portrayal of a wounded, tortured outcast that is so affectingly played, it's impossible not to be moved or shaken.

As Christine Daae, the young woman who becomes Erik's musical protégée, Anna Fagan possesses that lilting, crucial soprano voice that befits her character. She acts the part lovingly and convincingly as if Kopit wrote it with her in mind. And when she sings, her voice is rich, passionate and appealing. Her clear, musical articulation and power is combined to wonderful effect.

If ever an actress was born to play the desperate, egotistical Opera House diva Carlotta, it is Carly Callahan. She is every inch the Carlotta that Rosemary Ashe was in the original London West End production of "The Phantom of the Opera" and she far surpasses the tantalizing performance of Judy Kaye in the original Broadway production of the same musical. Here, she dazzles, cajoles, taunts and surprises as a woman so desperate for attention and star power, she will do anything to see her name up in lights. But she does it so cunningly, you can't help but applaud and enjoy her dastardly deeds even when it's "lights out" for Carlotta in the middle of Act II.

As an actor, Perry Liu comes to the Downtown Cabaret Theatre stage with an unbeatable style, presence and passion that categorizes all of his work. In the recent "In the Heights" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," Liu offered two very different characterizations that were honest, real and emotional. Here, in "Phantom," as Gerard Carriere, the Opera House's purposely dismissed general manager who plays an important part in Erik's life, Liu offers yet another superbly etched character portrait, played brilliantly and sung brilliantly.

Haunting, romantic and tearful, this complicated tale of a disfigured man obsessed with a young and beautiful Paris Opera House singer is a gripping and intense musical, driven with a remarkable sense of feeling, pathos and drama. The songs are contagious, as are, the performances.

"Phantom" is being staged at the Downtown Cabaret Theatre (262 Golden Hill St., Bridgeport, CT), now through Dec. 10.
For tickets or more information, call (203) 576-1636.

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