By John Quinn
Let’s start with the basics. Yes, it’s a musical. Yes, it’s called “Phantom.” No, it’s not by Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit, fresh from their successful collaboration, “Nine,” chose next to adapt Gaston Leroux’s classic horror story for the musical stage. The announcement by Webber that he was at work on the same theme drove off investors. “Phantom” never made it to Broadway; it debuted in Houston in 1991.
The Village Theater at Cherry Hill is host for 8th Wonder Theatre’s rendition of “Phantom,” and it’s mercifully free of the bombast in Sir Andrew’s opus. This is an old-style American musical with pleasant tunes, a thoughtful book and deeper characters than the better known work. Stripped of its gee-whiz effects we find there’s more to this story than we first suspected.
We know about Eric, the mad musical genius, hideously deformed but taking comfort in the beauty of music. We know of his home deep in the endless catacombs beneath the Paris Opera House. We know about his passion for the young singer Christine Daae and his obsession to develop her vocal talent to perfection. We remember the murderous methods to which he’d resort to achieve that goal.
“Phantom” is a decent enough work of musical theater and has its strong points. The book is entertaining, mixing a little humor in the macabre plot. It’s different from its better-known rival because more careful attention has been paid to character and situation. Motivation, cause and effect – the meat and potatoes of good storytelling are here.
Thanks to director Phil Simmons and his cast for making time to explore the emotional depths. This is a character-driven story and these characters are fully realized on stage. Yet one might speculate how better to “sell” the preposterous fairy tale Kopit presents. For a story so melodramatic, a wink and a nod might have been made to the classic Lon Chaney film. Oddly enough, a little over-the-top acting might have made the play more “real.”
The music, while satisfying, is not memorable. You won’t be leaving the theater hummin’ the tunes, by golly. The success of the score is strictly in the vocal cords of the cast. It is fortunate for 8th Wonder Theatre to have secured the services of Maria Couch for the pivotal role of Christine Daae. Couch is experienced in the part, having performed it in the National Road Tour. Her clean soprano brought out the best in the lyrics.
No “Phantom” can get off the ground without a powerhouse singer in the title role. Here that soaring tenor belongs to local actor Jeffrey Willets. Willits not only takes on some tricky vocal challenges, he makes them look easy. Solo, he’s solid, but much of “Phantom’s charm lies in duets between the principals. The second act number “You Are My Own” appeared unexpectedly and is one of the most poignant songs ever attached to the Phantom tale. I can’t say any more without giving away a major secret – and then they’d have to kill me.
The sadness in the tale is lightened by the formidable Angela Torres, a singer far more talented than the woeful character she plays – the vocally challenged diva Carlotta. Carlotta’s soprano warbles are the last straw for sensitive Eric, and the audience seemed to relish her punishment.
Also of note are solid performances from Daniel D’Amico as Christine’s noble admirer and patron, and Charlie Sutherland as the deposed theater manager Carriere.
The orchestra, under the direction of Ryan Lewis, sounds richer than a mere head count would lead one to expect. In the intimate setting of The Village Theater at Cherry Hill, heavy bass occasionally drowned out a word or two of song.
8th Wonder is composed of theater professionals (including Broadway veterans) and faculty in the theater department of Eastern Michigan University. Its profits feed directly into scholarships and service awards for both incoming and continuing students at Eastern Michigan University who are studying music, theater or dance. One will note in a production like this that there is a marked difference between the seasoned cast members and those still learning their craft. Learning by doing is a tried and true teaching tool – so, more power to ya! Beats working in the costume room, doesn’t it? That’s an inside joke. I could explain it to you but then — etc.
8th Wonder Theatre at The Village Theater at Cherry Hill, 50400 Cherry Hill Rd., Canton. Friday-Sunday through Aug. 15. $17. 734-394-5460. http://www.8thwondertheatre.com