This is not your father's phantom. It's not Andrew Lloyd Webber's phantom. It's not Broadway's phantom.
It's Arthur Kopit's and Maury Yeston's Phantom. That's right! Kopit and Yeston have done it again. That same pair that sent you dancing to the parking lot and singing in your sleep countless times with the classics of musical theater. Classics like ... like ... well, I don't want to give away the secret of any plays not yet completed.
There is an audience for this play. For many, the very fact that it is not Lord Lloyd Webber says something in its favor. But it's pure delusion to think of this alternative adaptation of Gaston Leroux's novel as in any way the equal of The Phantom of the Opera with its masquerades and its music of the night, its chandeliers and its intricate, labyrinthine, subterranean world of romance. One musical makes an art form out of the romance genre, serving up schmaltz and sentimentality as high culture. This one does not.
Kopit and Yeston's Phantom-lite has the edge in one area: It is a more realistic vehicle for smaller regional theaters confronted by limited resources -- financial and human. The Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center Repertory Theatre Company finds the resources on both fronts, and the result is a lavishly staged and beautifully sung production. The cast's greatest accomplishment is their ability to convince the audience that they are performing in a good play.
From the first bars of the opening number, this production inhabits a rarified air in the local theater scene. Donna Clement's expansive set is soon filled with a full chorus of vendors and customers inhabiting the streets of Paris two turns of the century ago. The multilayered opera house is captivating, and the disfigured phantom's underground lairs are enhanced by a boggling backdrop giving depth and texture to the tangled catacombs perpetually dusted with a thin mist of dry ice. Director Don Bill's cast effectively transports the audience, leaving us inescapably lost in illusion. Even when navigating through the tritest of lyrics and the most predictable of plot developments, the cast is able to elevate the material and stir the audience.
Most prominent in that first scene is Judeth Shay Burns in her melodic entrance as Christine, the young ingenue who will work her way into the opera. Although the music is neither memorable nor compelling, a performer of Burns' caliber can soar with the score, captivating her audience and providing the sense of magic and the holy reverence for music that spur the characters and justify the action. Too often, an audience is overchallenged to accept characters as irresistibly beautiful or talented when cast members can't summon the powers of persuasion to evoke the distinguishing qualities. In Phantom, where the action turns on the stunning talents of Christine, Burns is utterly convincing, worthy of the phantom's guarded praise as he begins to mentor her with the claim that "You Are Music."
A challenge of another sort falls to Victoria Hansen Clamp as Carlotta, the self-absorbed prima donna whose husband is the new owner of the Paris Opera House. Carlotta calls for a plug-your-ears approach to the music, and Clamp must tread the delicate line between displaying a voice worse than the phantom's face without causing a panicked rush for the emergency exits in delightful numbers like "This Place Is Mine" with its refrain insisting that "a diva's work is never done." Clamp keeps her wicked witch light and comic, resulting in a humorous villain the audience loves to hate.
Daniel Fosha carries the burden of the phantom capably, quickly and consistently convincing Christine and the audience of his pedigree as a maestro. The challenge of playing the entire show behind "a mask, a mask, a terrifying mask" requires substantial compensation to keep the character from appearing fixed and one-dimensional. Fosha captures the phantom's obsessive drive and his easy justifications for his penchant for murder, but we never fully understand the character's inner attractiveness. Christine requires an overpowering motivation to follow the phantom down to his catacombs, and we never see that quality in Fosha's phantom.
When the music is memorable, it is unfortunately because of laughable lyrics like "la la la la la la" and "the opera's been invaded by a phantom/the opera's been invaded by a ghoo-oo-oo-st." If only good singing made good music, this production would make an unsurpassable play out of Phantom. As it stands, if audiences can put aside the higher expectations of the better-known stage classic, they will find much to admire in these valiant performances.