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It's A 'Phantom' For Folks Who Love To Laugh

March 5th - 11th 1992
Written for Fun and Gaming Magazine (Reno) by Victor Williams

My, how times have changed.

A decade ago, when the Reno entertainment scene was a lot more standard -issue Nevada - topless shows galore, million - dollar epics such as "Hello, Hollywood, Hello!" and big name - name headliners as far as the spotlight could see - to consider bringing a production like Ken Hill's "Phantom of the Opera" into a casino showroom would have been laughable, if not suicidal. Not anymore: after watching several other Reno and Tahoe resorts find amazing success in staging road versions of Broadway plays, Bally's has jumped onto the bandwagon with this delightful, comic adaptation of the 1911 Gaston Leroux novel, leaving a forgotton stream of sequins and feather boas in its wake. No one knows for sure whether the days of Donn Arden mega - productions are over, but "Phantom" is certainly a worthy stopgap, just as the rousing Brazilian excursion "Oba Oba" proved to be for the 2000 - seat Ziegfeld Theatre last year.

Now that "Phantom" has been extended to at least April 5, people who may still think they're seeing the more serious and special effect packed Andrew Lloyd Webber version have ample time to set themselves straight. Ken Hill's approach is all - out vaudvillian fun with a storyline that follows the original book more closely than Webber's foray - though Hill, as writer - director, has taken great pains to defuse most of Leroux's post - Victorian melodrama by putting witty and sometimes absurd lyrics to operatic compositions by Offenbach, Donizetti, Verdi, Gounod, and others. The result is a light and lively (but not dietetic, action wise) two -and -a - half hours of Moliere - like wit and whimsy. Every character - from the pompous Paris Opera House manager Richard (William Linton) to the "boxkeeper" Madame Giry (Su Ellen Estey) to the Phantom himself (campily portrayed by Steve Blanchard) - is really more of a caricature, a means to a comic end; you don't get the impression that there are souls to be plumbed here.

Even a climactic wedding scene between the Phantom and his previously betrothed love, Christine (Courtenay Collins in the show's least funny role, but also its most "glowing" musically, thanks to her stunning soprano voice) is skewered by the entrance of a defrocked priest and his courtesan companion. And the final death scene,with the entire cast looking on as the Phantom sends himself into eternity, is both touching and tickling. The story is familiar to late - night movie viewers. Horrible disfigured at birth ("The skin peeled back to white bone," says a mysterious Persian visitor, played by Kevin Baily), the Phantom takes up his residence far beneath the Opera House - six levels down, next to an underground lake, where Madame Giry's father used to torture scores of poor souls. For years he's been looking for the perfect love, the antidote to his loneliness, and he has no qualms about 'doing in ' any male who gets in his way. Oh, and he's also a frustrated composer who likes to play Bach's "Tocatta and Fugue in D minor" on his subterranean organ. This show's feverish and somewhat giddy storyline revolves around a production of Gounod's "Faust", and the Phantom does everything in his power to disrupt the proceedings, including rubbing out the lead singer - an egomanical diva hilariously rendered by Suzanne Grodner - with the help of a chandelier ( he also gives the big crystal job hanging over the audience a good shake or two, just to keep people on their toes). It's clear he won't let up until Christine wins the lead role, and she does, singing "Ah, Do I Hear Thee Once Again?" to her invisible "angel of music". Problem is, nobody believes the Phantom exists except Christine and Madam Giry, who has worked at the Opera House "since it was built"and steers everyone clear of Box 5, the Phantom's designated viewing spot. Her mood turns frightful when the manager, Richard, demands use of the booth: she knows the Masked One won't stand idly by and expects a run of horrific events to be set in motion, which they are...though they're as funny as they are fearsome.

Christine's beau, Raoul (Christopher Monteleone) tries to keep tabs on her and even overhears a conversation between her and the Phantom. He ventures into her dressing room only to find it empty; he catches up to her at a local graveyard (singing "Love Has Gone, Never Returning" by Offenbach in the show's most gut-wrenching vocal performance) and gets all choked up at the hands of you- know- who; and he later finds her on the roof of the Opera House, which is also populated by an addled old man calling "Here, pigeon, here, pigeeee..." (Steven Berger in one of his half - dozen roles). The rooftop is the final scene of Act I, and Raoul and Christine are joined by the Phantom for a charming and melancholy bit of round harmony on "To Pain My Heart Selfishly Dooms Me." Eventually, after her initial songas Margurite in "Faust", Christine disappears in a blackout; the rest of the cast then looks high and low for her, taking their lanterns into the audience singing "I See No Sign." No luck - the Phantom has obviously lived up to his written warnings to Richard and kidnapped the fair maiden. He takes her to the underground lake, ties her to a fog - shrowded dock and rows into the darkness, leaving Christine time to put her predicament into song, "Somewhere Above the Sun Shines Bright". Again Collins' voice is stunning, laced with the dramatic poise and control of a Julliard award- winner - which she is, of course. Meanwhile, everybody else migrates to the boiler room, and after the Persian reveals his true identity, fills us in on the Phantom's history and arms himself and Raoul for a final showdown, things start heating up literally. It looks like curtains for these unfortunate Opera House denizens, even the pretty ballet dancer Jammes (Diana Gonzalez), who spends the whole show on tiptoe in a tutu and certainly doesn't deserve to die.

Along the way the hopelessly superstitious Madam Giry reads tea leaves, and their message ain't all that healthy - so, the motley group breaks into a crackpot chorus of "What an Awful Way to Perish," in essesnce throwing up their arms in surrender and laughing their way to doomdom. The finale takes place in the Phantom's lair, with his organ and its unkempt riot of sheet music as center - piece. He's determined to wed Christine despite he arguments, and that's where the priest and showgirl come into the picture (only to confuse matters). Finally, the Phantom lulls Christine by singing "Ne'er Forsake Me, Here Remain" and the audience gets its first true feeling for Steve Blanchard's towering presence - this is one big guy. Soon the Phantom's resolve wanes, however. His limp become more pronounced, and when Christine knocks off his mask, all is lost. A union sealed in death seems his only option, and he'll take the beauty with him..... Or will he? "Phantom of the Opera" does have its serious moments, and Blanchard leaves the laughs to his cohorts, but ultimately he creates a villian that is only quasi - tragic. He's all ham and not what I call menacing - not at all. As I mentioned before, he's a caricature, the veritable Freak With a Heart ... a broken heart. Other cast members include Ganon McHale as Richard's secretary, Remy: the rotund and wonderful Vince Trani as Faust and Anne Hampson as Lisette. All are obviously seasoned pros who, together with the major characters, make Ken Hill's "Phantom of the Opera" a refreshing and worthwhile change of pace for Reno's revue - weary entertainment fan. This is devilishly good fun.