Kitsch in Sync

Rats, The Mousetrap is back. So is The Phantom of the Opera, that great and glorious hunk of cheese from the grand vizier of musical cheddar, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber. The former is onstage at Theatre Three; the latter has parked its high-fat touring production in the Music Hall at Fair Park for several weeks.

The shows, each selling a certain kind of tried-and-true showbiz kitsch, have something else in common: longevity. Mousetrap, the Agatha Christie mystery, remains the longest-running straight play on a London stage--54 years and counting. Phantom holds the record for the longest Broadway run, 18 years, beating Cats and A Chorus Line. That says something about the popularity of these works, though by now about the only reason any serious theatergoer would waste time seeing The Mousetrap in London is if the ticket were part of a package tour, along with a trip to Madame Tussauds. The silly old play is as much a waxwork as that museum's permanently staring replicas of Dolly Parton and Jack the Ripper.

The Mousetrap is mystery trapped in amber, and Theatre Three director Kerry Cole does little to free it from its sticky conventions other than to ask a couple of actors to so overplay their roles that they threaten to explode right out of their costumes. Suspense? Not much. The only real puzzle for the audience to ponder is if it all will be over in time to catch the 10 o'clock news. (Sadly, no. Letterman's Top 10 maybe.)

The play opens with a radio newsman alerting the masses to a killer on the loose. A young couple (Ashley Wood and Lisa Schreiner at the performance reviewed) in the throes of opening their own bed-and-breakfast welcome a succession of odd-bodies over the threshold. Any one of them--cranky old magistrate (Carolyn Wickwire), effeminate architect (Chad Peterson), Italian gigolo (Bob Hess, providing the evening's only engaging performance), sullen lesbian (Tracy Leigh), army officer (Michael Craig Rains), plodding detective (David M. Dixon)--might be the murderer. There's not a butler among them to pin it on, but by the end of the first act it becomes pretty obvious who's doing the deadly deeds.

Not that you'll care. When at last the murderer is unmasked, he (or she) goes into such a crazy, breathless B-movie tizzy that the moment is ruined. Why a play this artless has run for half a century is the real mystery.

But wait, speaking of masks, I wasn't expecting much from The Phantom of the Opera either, and that show's latest touring production has ended up winning me over. Bang the pipe organ, call me a Fan-tom and buy me the T-shirt. I loved it.

Having previously caught only Michael Crawford's strangled croak straining for the high notes of "Music of the Night," it was a revelation to hear that song and the Phantom's other biggie, "All I Ask of You," at last sung flawlessly and with real gutsy oomph by the tour's star, Gary Mauer. What a voice. But better, what an actor. And it can't be easy getting angst across the footlights with that half-pound of plastic glued to his cheek.

The strong acting of the story gives this Phantom of the Opera its depth and offers better accessibility to the horror movie plot line than previous productions, on Broadway or elsewhere (don't even talk about the lifeless 2004 movie version). Now it's not just about show-offy singing by the handsome leads. Mauer, Marie Danvers as ingénue Christine and Jim Weitzer as Christine's boyfriend Raoul really work at turning what can be plastic characters into real people with real feelings.

On Broadway, Crawford's Phantom always seemed a little wispy and unsure, like a British Barry Manilow living in the tunnels under a gay bathhouse. Something about his fluttery fingers and the way he twirled his cape. Mauer's is more of a muy mas macho monster, but one who's more misunderstood than murderous. For the first time, it's really clear what screwed the guy up in the first place. As he reveals in the final scenes, after he has kidnapped Christine not for sex but for voice lessons, we learn that the Phantom was born deformed and sold into the circus as a child by his uncaring mum. Like the Hunchback of Notre Dame and the Elephant Man, he just wants to be loved for who he is inside. He haunts the dark corners of the opera house because he likes the music. And clearly he acts out badly when he's caught out of costume. Without his white half-mask and black toupee, the Phantom looks a lot like the balding Shirley MacLaine after the car wreck in Postcards From the Edge.

The production on view at the Music Hall, like the Broadway show, was directed by the old master, Harold Prince, and designed by Maria Björnson with enough scenery for five other shows. As spectacles go, Phantom is Wicked sans flying monkeys, with almost too many moving elements, too many shiny costumes and exploding flashpots. Extravagant layers of two-story-high velvet curtains part, and the stage gleams in the retro glow of the 19th-century Paris Opera. Moments later the scenery shifts seamlessly to unveil the Phantom's murky underground lair. He and Christine float in on a little gondola through hundreds of flickering candles and clouds of mist, and it's hold-your-breath time.

Sure, the kitsch factor flows as thick as the stuff in the Paris sewers. Lloyd Webber's goopy melodies, as always, grow repetitive. And the overdone, over-sung opera scenes turn the show into the very thing it attempts to send up. Everybody waits for the chandelier to go crashing to the floor. Why else would it be swinging up there above the audience's heads?

What we don't expect is for the Phantom to show up over there. Or over there. And we don't expect to care so much what happens to the poor fellow by the end. We will never really know who that masked man was. But we'll miss him. That's the beauty of this beast.

The entire production budget of Diaries of a Barefoot Diva: And Other Tales and Stories From the Ghetto probably wouldn't cover one day's dry cleaning for Phantom of the Opera. But the musical now in its premiere run at Fort Worth's tiny Jubilee Theatre offers just as many show-stopping moments as the big-money show, and it could teach Phantom's cast a thing or two about connecting directly and intimately with an audience.

Written by and starring one of Jubilee's favorite leading ladies, Sheran Goodspeed Keyton, Diaries, in song and story, tells of a ghetto-fab gal named Lizzie who hopes to become a filmmaker. Her favorite characters are her eccentric neighbors. Aunt Bea (Carolyn Hatcher) serves as "Madea" of the block, watching everybody's business from her kitchen window and offering advice, solicited or not. Mr. Charlie (Robert Rouse) plays street philosopher, pushing his belongings in a shopping cart and reminiscing with irascible Bea over how things used to be.

Porche (Michele Rene) is a single mother of seven kids so terrible nobody will baby-sit. She includes "Ebonics" when a job application says "bilingual people preferred." Blade (David M. Patterson) acts as the gang rule enforcer. Landlord's assistant Ms. Hodges (Teekoyah "T.K." Nickson) collects rent and considers the struggling residents her inferiors.

Class warfare is a major theme of Diaries, and after every few lines of dialogue, everyone comes onstage to sing about it and dance a little. Composers Joe Rogers and Aaron Petite deliver catchy tunes and clever lyrics. They appreciate the traditional structure of musical theater, too, weaving a "dream song" for Lizzie early into the first act and adding some hip-hop interludes and a dash of tango for a burst of energy here and there. Two numbers stand out: Mr. Charlie's bluesy "Every Day," where he warns Lizzie of life's inevitable unpredictability; and Charlie and Bea's comic doo-wop duet, "Back in the Day" ("Nobody cared about a nipple ring/Back in the day we just knew how to sing").

Like one of Tyler Perry's comedies, the acting in Diaries is broad, and the jokes can be groaners. Director Tyrone King also has indulged writer-star Keyton perhaps a bit too liberally in her moments in the spotlight. She has a voice as rich and sweet as caramel but tends to pull out the same vocal tricks on every solo.

This production succeeds on its playfulness and lack of pretensions. It's a little show on a small stage that fills the audience with a big dose of the feel-good spirit. Catch it if you can.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner