'Phantom' works like good, spring tonic
March 27th 1987
Written for The Clayton Citizen Journal by Frank Hunter
If you're looking for a good spring tonic, a pair of seats for the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis' larkish and extravagant production of Ken Hill's The Phantom of the Opera is a pause that refreshes.
From the top of set designer Joe Vanek's sumptuous recreation of the Paris Opera House, to the bowels of its ominous boiler room and the Phantom's hellish chapel, Hill's play with music by Gounod, Bizet and Offenbach is a thoroughly enchanting diversion worth catching before the final curtain April 17 at The Rep.
Hill's adapation of Gaston Leroux's classic novel dealing with a hideously disfigured lunatic's obsession with a naive young singer is a unique treatment, first performed in England in 1984 at the Newcastle Playhouse.
Hungarian director Peter Farago and a strong cast of singer-actors liberally lace the melodrama with blinding theatrics and outrageous humor, and the whole thing really is a hoot - a difficult, impressive undertaking said to be The Rep's most costly, technically ambitious project in 20 years.
The costs may be out of sight, but the finished product is a delightful finale to The Rep's winter season.
Vanek's set is a work of art utilizing the entire Mainstage area where he and his crew constructed an opera house auditorium comprised of spooky nooks and crannies, backstage areas, dressing rooms and a nearby cemetery containing an above-ground cypt suitable for the Phantom's mayhem and madness. There's even a dank cellar, home to a sinister spear-carrying rat-catcher, and further below lies a misty black lagoon with an island, the Phantom's lair in which a tormented soul soothes the savage beast within at the keyboard of a gigantic pipe organ.
Cramming all this stuff onto a stage that's only 60 feet wide is a colossal achievement and Vanek and company have gone the distance and then some.
For such a large undertaking you would expect a colossal orchestra. Not so, and not necessary.
Diane Ceccarini, with Byron Grant supervising the music, works with piano-synthesizer. Everything turns out fine since she provides all necessary accompaniment, along with sinister sound effects when the Phantom is getting ready to drop a chandelier here or there or thottle an adversary with a handy violin G string.
Kathleen Mahoney-Bennett, in a wonderfully rambunctious role of the cantakerous diva Carlotta whose career is threatened by a youthful newcomer, also handles three other parts, including a chorus girl and the aforementioned Rat Catcher. That Mahoney-Bennett keeps her head on straight while getting the right clothes on is a testimony to the wardrobe department as well as the actress' considerable talent.
One of the funnier roles goes to Richard Warren Pugh as Faust in the play-within-a-play, and Stan Rubin is a study in hilarious frustration as the newly appointed opera house manager ultimately forced to accept the Phantom's existence. But unlike most "ghosts," as he is known, the Phantom has his pragmatic side, demanding a monthly stipend of 20,000 francs payable in cash deposited in Box No. 5 as agreed to by a contract forged in blood with the new manager's fearful predecessors.
The elusive monster, first glimpsed through smoky dressing room mirrors or flitting bat-like through the wings and heard chuckling malevolently over the theater's speaker system like The Shadow in the early days of radio, is played splendidly by Sal Mistretta.
Victoria Brasser is an eloquent Christine, a singer-actress who recently made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Ida in Die Fledermaus.
Her impassioned lover Raoul is Merwin Foard, a prince charming of another sort in a recent revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella, and Foard offers virile support and excellent vocal prowess here.
Raoul heads the search for Christine, aided by Bob Morrisey, who first runs into the ubiquitous devil as Mephistopheles and later returns as the mysterious Persian.
A man with the gifts of Merlin, the Persian has his reasons for loathing the wraith born to circus performers who was so piqued by his father for siring him that he secretly greased the highwire his parents had walked for years. It was, shall we say, their final performance.
Some of the best lines in the show are reserved for the acidulous prop mistress Madame Giry, who has watched a string of frustrated opera house managers come and go because they refuse to believe that "the ghost" exists.
But The Phantom is alive, kicking heads and doing his best to make them roll in The Rep's spectacular mounting of a grand old adventure.