A ghost haunts the new musical version of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA by Michael Sgouros and Brenda Bell…and it’s not the title character. No matter how hard they try to be different, no matter how much they acknowledge the original novel, Sgouros and Bell can’t shake the specter of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s megamusical behemoth. This new PHANTOM can’t help but repeat many of Webber’s key images, right down to the Phantom’s final dramatic disappearance. Webber’s PHANTOM is a triumph of spectacle over substance, but there’s so little of either here you almost long for Webber’s bombast.
Thanks to the ubiquity of Webber’s musical and the influence of Lon Chaney’s silent film, the story of the deformed Phantom and his doomed love for soprano Christine Daae has achieved near-mythic status. To their credit, Sgouros and Bell have followed the source material, Gaston Leroux’s novel, more closely than most adaptors. They restore many forgotten characters, including the Persian, a mysterious man who’s followed the Phantom around the world, and Mama Valerius, Christine’s dotty godmother. In the novel, Leroux connects disparate strands through his own first-person narration, relating the tale as if it were fact. Accordingly, Sgouros and Bell have made Gaston Leroux the narrator of their musical, with the inspired device of Leroux assuming various character parts as the story progresses.
Following the source material proves to be more curse than blessing. Leroux’s novel has an inherent passivity—with many passages consisting of one character relating to another an event that happened days or weeks ago. In preserving this narrative structure, Sgouros and Bell have remained too rooted in the novelistic form, failing to find a compelling dramatic force to drive their story forward. The result is a musical that despite its melodramatic plot, drags dramatically.
And there’s the pesky problem of Webber’s PHANTOM, whose ghost lingers in more than a few key moments, from the Degas-like ballet chorus to the mirrored door in Christine’s dressing room. Yes, these are all mentioned in the novel, but their use as stage pictures here nevertheless echoes their Broadway counterpart.
Still, Sgouros and Bell’s PHANTOM finds some wonderful comic moments in Leroux’s tale, helped in part by their accomplished cast. Brianna Hurley stops the show as the gleefully eccentric Mama Valerius, and Tony Paterniti makes Gaston Leroux as amusing as he is compassionate. Eric Fletcher finds unexpected flashes of humor in the Phantom, but unfortunately he’s saddled with a very unscary mask that looks like a strange hybrid between a plastic skull and aviator goggles. Nor does the music to push the story forward. This PHANTOM feels more like a play with music than a musical. As tacky as Webber’s PHANTOM is, as overwrought as his music can be, his PHANTOM was driven from beginning to end by music. Here, Sgouros’ music feels oddly disconnected from Bell’s ponderous book, and there’s not enough music for it to feel an organic part of the story. Which is too bad, as there are some inspired songs, particularly the haunting “Kyrie” and “Soul Mate Choral.”
Visually, this PHANTOM is bare bones, making ingenious use of the intimate Players’ Theatre space. Set and costume designer Lex Liang makes clever use of an empty gold proscenium to convey the opera house stage, while Brenda Bell, who directed the production as well as wrote the book and lyrics, makes the elaborate transitions between scenes run seamlessly. Lighting designer Josh Iacovelli memorably bathes the stage in eerie red light during the Phantom’s most frightening scenes.
In the end, this PHANTOM doesn’t quite soar or scare with consistency, but it nonetheless has its memorable moments.
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