By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Among items decorating the set of Garland Civic Theatre's production of the musical Phantom: four ceramic lion statues, a gold-plastic dragon, a small forest of droopy silk trees in gray plastic pots, a vase stuffed with leaves and peacock feathers, three plastic shields, a framed drawing of a chair, a large bronze fan, several baskets of silk roses, assorted mismatched chairs and tables, many fake-marble columns, two identical framed prints of tigers of the sort you might see decorating a car wash waiting area, a gigantic glow-in-the-dark painting of a tiger's face (possibly on velvet, hard to tell), a small framed print of an empty chair, a chaise longue draped in tiger-print fabric, some leopard-print throw pillows, a spiky metal gate, a poster of Parisian fashion circa 1950 (the show takes place in the 1890s), a streetlamp made of plywood, several lion's head doorknockers not attached to doors, a scowling sun-face hanging from a stair railing and a chandelier made of Christmas lights and pink plastic roses.
This isn't scenery; it's Liberace's basement.
There's plenty of time to take a thorough inventory of director-designer Kyle McClaran's spectacularly style-challenged furnishings and accessories for the Maury Yeston/Arthur Kopit operetta. Running within a wig hair of three hours, this Phantom drags. If it were in drag, it might be bearable. Instead, it is over-earnest, unpolished community theater done with dime-store design elements, dodgy singing, spotty acting and at a pace that threatens spinal stenosis.
Community theater implies modest production budgets and amateur actors working for free (except perhaps the leads). It does not, however, have to look cheap and tacky. It does not have to sound as if everyone is singing through a plastic bullhorn. Bus terminals have better speaker systems than Garland Civic Theatre. And to compensate for the tinny audio, the volume is cranked to 11. When Christine, the ingénue played in this production by Stephanie Hall, hits her high notes, it's like standing too close to the noon whistle.
So much is wrong with this Phantom, starting with the score. Yeston, composer of Nine (and later Titanic), had written the music, and playwright Kopit (Nine, Wings) the libretto in the early 1980s, years before Andrew Lloyd Webber's take on the 1911 Gaston Laroux Phantom of the Opera horror tale. They had backers for a Broadway run, but the money evaporated once Lloyd Webber's show hit big in London and then New York. The Yeston-Kopit Phantom, later subtitled The American Musical Sensation so as not to be confused with the actual musical sensation, was relegated to the hinterlands, starting with a $1.5 million debut staging at Houston's Theatre Under the Stars in 1991.
Kopit made his storyline a mash-up of The Elephant Man, Hunchback of Notre Dame and My Fair Lady. In this Phantom, the masked man is named Erik (played in Garland by Terrence McEnroe). Born to an unmarried opera starlet and raised in a wet subterranean vault beneath the Paris Opera, Erik suffers from congenital ugliness à la Quasimodo. He haunts the theater after hours, leaving hate mail when performances are rotten and killing hapless stagehands sent down to his lair to search for missing props.
This Phantom makes Erik a love-starved monster with a mommy fixation. Pretty street-singer Christine is his Esmeralda/Eliza Doolittle. When Erik peers through his mask at the opera company newcomer who looks exactly like his dead mother (she'd poisoned herself after discovering the philandering baby-daddy was already married), he falls in love. Holding Christine hostage in his pied à terror, Erik gives her voice lessons with the goal of dethroning Carlotta, the reigning opera diva (played by Emily H. Hunt).
Trying for the light operatic flourishes of Sigmund Romberg, Yeston's music is a mess, the score crowded with frou-frou songs that only make Lloyd Webber's screamers sound better by comparison. Phantom's "You Are the Music" lacks the soaring, melodious hook of Phantom of the Opera's "Music of the Night." Even the best of the Yeston-Kopit show, a pleasant ballad called "Home," goes limp and syrupy against "All I Ask of You," Lloyd Webber's lush duet between his Phantom and Christine.
The only good love song in Phantom is "You Are My Own," sung to Erik by his birth father, Carriere (Jackie L. Kemp, giving a nicely subtle performance), who fesses up to père-hood only after Erik has been shot by the gendarmes. Rounding out the opera clichés, Erik, fatally wounded, joins in a rousing, show-ending baritone duet.
That number comes some two hours and 55 minutes into the Garland Civic production, which wastes precious time on lengthy scene change blackouts, during which much crashing and banging can be heard onstage, accompanied by the recorded sound of a tiger's roar. What do jungle noises have to do with a story set in fin de siècle Paris? About as much as that incongruous Chanel fashion poster, those twinkly green disco lights or the back of Christine's frocks, which, as Heidi Klum once observed of an ill-sewn Project Runway gown, are "pooing fabric."
The costumes by Ryan Matthieu Smith are as junk-strewn and haphazard as the scenery. Surely it's meant to be a joke that he put the French policemen in London bobby uniforms and that one of Erik's masks is a clown face from a John Wayne Gacy painting.
There are so many bobbles in GCT's Phantom, it could easily be tipped over and played for broad comedy. Wigs fly off heads and are punted offstage by stumbling dancers. The Phantom twirls his cape and knocks gewgaws off tabletops. The choreography by Morgana Shaw is cartoon-funny, combining wavy arms with alarming amounts of squatting, which can't be easy to do in costumes fashioned with fabric-pooing bustles.
Actors knock on invisible doors and trip up very visible stairs. In one number, the poor dancers are forced to wave and squat up steps past a "dead" chorus boy lying in their path. They pay him no mind.
As the hour grows late, the goings-on get sillier. Phantom Erik takes Christine on a "picnic" in the Paris catacombs, where a small band of sewer snoids lays out the snacks by the glow of what might be methane gas. When Christine naps on the fur-covered chaise, Erik sings his big love song to her at the top of his lungs (and noticeably off-pitch by Mr. McEnroe). At the performance reviewed, one patron could be heard whispering, "Wow, she's a sound sleeper."
Hall and McEnroe have zip chemistry. Hall rolls her eyes and bats her eyelashes like one of the Gish sisters in Orphans of the Storm. If she weren't so over-amplified, her warbly high soprano might not sound so unnaturally curdled and shrill.
The only members of the cast who seem to realize they're in a honker and play it for big laughs are Emily H. Hunt, as the evil opera hag Carlotta, and Dennis Gullion as her husband, Cholet. She's doing a great Joanne Worley impression, and he's doing an outrageous Paul Lynde, lending their scenes an antic '60s sitcom flair. They could easily get away with chewing more scenery. On this set, they'd be doing it a favor.