The Turtle Lane Playhouse has done a remarkable job in producing "Phantom". Thanks to Ronald Dion's design wizardry an astonishing amount of complex and handsome scenery has once more been shoehorned magically onto the theatre's shoe box stage. The company has found leading performers who are not totally implausible as stars of the Paris Opera. The best voice, and the most assured stage presence, belongs to Margaret McCormick's Carlotta, and it is painful to hear her distorting it to accommodate her caricatured role. Richard Santos is remarkable as Carriere-- here is an actor's splendid ability to "believe six impossible things before breakfast". Diana Doyle embodies innocence and freshness as Christine, and Craig Spanner, who has been given at Turtle Lane a series of roles any young performer would sell his soul to assay, demonstrates as Erik the Phantom that he is a raw talent of immense promise who still has a long way to go. Richard Itzak's costumes are lavish, the Turtle Lane company wears them with panache; under the direction of Wayne Ward and Paul Farwell the ensemble's singing is competent and their acting level is a step or two above. Nevertheless, it won't do. "Phantom" is an all-or-nothing narrative of extremes, about thrill of giving oneself over and being swept away-- what we mean when we call something "operatic". Any re-telling of the "Phantom" story must have the power to seduce and sweep away. Kopit's script is is too rational, inviting a disengaging laughter or a distracting psycho-historical analysis that impedes the necessary seduction of the audience, and neither Yeston's music nor the scenic means available to Turtle Lane are powerful enough to bully us into submission in spite of it. Ninety percent of the on stage proceedings were successful, and earned their applause. But the great gothic moments of the story were greeted by disbelieving snorts and embarrassed giggles, alas.
I haven't seen the Lloyd-Webber "Phantom of the Opera" -- the truth is, I don't really "approve" of "the Phantom of the Opera". I think that, like "Sweeny Todd" and a whole host of other gothic narratives, it is a story with immense power to bring out and affirm our baser nature, and therefore one that should be told either consciously and clinically, as a cautionary tale that incorporates its own antidote, or by an artist who is wrestling with his own demons and can't help himself. Presumably, the Kopit-Yeston team was in pursuit of the "antidote" version, rather than cynically exploiting the success associated with other dramatizations. However, in the theatre an emotional catharsis must work homepathically-- first you must infect the audience with the disease you propose to cure. I have heard of Lloyd-Webber's swooning "Phantom" fans, and addicts who go back again and again to re-experience the high, so I assume that that production does have the power to sweep away at least susceptible adolescents. The Turtle Lane program declares: "Erik is not a monster. His story is not a horror story. Erik is a man, and his story is the story of all men. The need to belong. The desire to be loved. This Phantom is human. Our response to him should be humane." Very adult. Very liberal. I suspect that the problem with this "Phantom" is that it aspires to be adult and "interesting", instead of embracing the demonically infantile and charging past the vigilant superego to reveal the monster in us all. Sorry. It just won't do.