PHANTOM OR PHANTOM OF THE OPERA?

Published: Monday, October 15, 2018 By: Chesley Plemmons Source: Danbury News Times

 Which would you rather be - first or best?

That's a key question when comparing Andrew Lloyd Webber's  "Phantom of the Opera," Broadway's long-running hit, with Maury Yeston's "Phantom" now in another splendid revival at the Westchester Broadway Theatre in Elmsford, New York. This popular dinner theatre's production is its fourth beginning with its opening there in 1992. Revivals scored again in 1996 and 2007.

Yeston (music and lyrics) and Arthur Kopit (book)  were beaten to Broadway after Lloyd Webber's production opened in London drying up possible production money for their version. Undaunted Yeston went on to write "'Grand Hotel" "Nine" and "Titanic."  "Phantom" was "rediscovered" in 1992 in Houston where it was produced with box office success and critical approval. Seattle and Chicago followed with Westchester opening in July 1992 for a nine-month record-setting run.

Both musicals are based on the classic novel by Gaston LeRoux about a deranged: "phantom" who haunts the bowels of the Paris Opera House occasionally striking out in a murderous fury against intruders into his secret world and more to the point at -  lousy singers.

When the "phantom" falls in love, first with the voice of young girl working for the Opera's temperamental prima donna, and, subsequently, with the girl herself, the stage is set for a romantic drama filled with music and murder. There's even a little comedy on the side - opera divas are easy to make fun of.

It follows then, to my mind, that music and plot are what makes "Phantom" superior. Of course, there's no gigantic set or huge crashing chandelier like Broadway, but Yeston and Kopit provide a more satisfying, believable and complete story than the open-ended version of Lloyd Webber. How the phantom became who he is, how he survived for years without capture, and ultimately his tragic fate are revealed in Kopit's solid book.

Musically and vocally this production soars with Matthew Billman and Kayleen Seidl as Erik, the "phantom" and his love, Christine. Both are attractive and persuasive actors and they lift Yeston's songs to the rafters. 

Other standouts in the large cast are James VanTreuren in a warm and well-sung role as Carriere, Erik's protector, Sandy Rosenberg as the bossy, talent-free diva Carlotta, Larry Luck as the handsome Count Phillipe who is smitten with Christine. Also, lending support as members of the Opera House elite are Kilty Reidy (Cholet) and Roger Preston Smith (Jean Claude)  plus Jose Plaza in a brief, fey bit as Oberon in the opera, "A Midsummer Night's Dream," 

The set, originally designed by George Puello, has been revamped and handsomely enhanced by Set Coordinators Steve Loftus and Carl 

Tallent with appropriately "spooky" lighting by Andrew Gmoser. Costume design by Keith Neilson captures turn-of-the-century Paris with all its elaborateness and a rainbow spectrum of color.

Tom Polum who has directed this show at Westchester before is at the helm and masterly in charge of his material and performers. Erica Mansfield serves him well with her musical staging.

So which version do I think is "best"?  You should be able to guess. A final clue, "You Are Music" from this show is, to me, infinitely more haunting than Webbers' "Music of the Night,."

Oh yes, there is a chandelier that falls - not a huge one but I wouldn't want to be under it.

"Phantom" continues through Nov, 27, takes a hiatus during the run of a new, family-friendly musical production of "A Christmas Carol" (Nov. 29-Dec. 23), and reopens on Dec. 27 for a final run through Jan 27, 2019.