Let’s get this out of the way: In case you're attending to specifically hear “Music of the Night” or other well-known tunes, the current production of the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse's Phantom is not Andrew Lloyd Webber's more famous version of the same story. Comparing Phantom to Webber's The Phantom of the Opera is like comparing a croissant to an éclair. Both are French, textured, and rich with flavor, but also two totally different experiences.
Book writer Arthur Kopit's and composer Maury Yeston's Phantom, based on novelist Gaston Leroux's legendary Le Fantôme de l’Opéra, follows the story of budding opera singer Christine, who dreams of performing with the Paris Opera. Christine is played here by venue newcomer Emily Stokes, whose rich, penetrating soprano vocals, along with her tempting beauty, make her a perfect choice to play the virtuous female ingénue.
As Christine sings her dreams on the streets, Count Philippe (played valiantly by Chris Galván) overhears her, and sends her to meet his friend and Paris Opera House Manager Gerard Carriere (John Payonk). As fate would have it, Christine shows up to meet Gerard just as he is dismissed from his duties by new owner Cholet (Circa '21 staple Tom Walljasper) and his prima-donna wife Carlotta (Megan Wheeler). Christine is hired to work on costumes in the theatre basement, where she is overheard singing by Erik – otherwise known as the ethereal yet murderous Phantom of the Opera (Patrick Beasley).
Beasley's role is truly challenging, and my ability to empathize with his Phantom was inhibited by the inherent difficulties in having to act with a mask (sometimes two) covering your face through an entire show. Unfortunately, we also never get to see the cause of Erik's tragic life and how his disfigured face impacts him at the most human level, causing his Phantom to oftentimes appear merely petulant and spiteful. Beasley, however, does his very best to push beyond the mask(s) with his lush, interpretive baritone voice.
As the story unfolds, Carlotta becomes the new diva of the Paris Opera, the only problem being that her singing is dreadful. At least, that's what the audience is supposed to believe, as it's clear from the onset that Wheeler (last seen at Circa '21 in The Marvelous Wonderettes) has a magnificent voice that she cleverly affects to make Carlotta humorously over-the-top. Meanwhile, Walljasper creates a thorough character out of his pompous yet effusive Italian theatre proprietor, and delivers many moments of humor that fittingly relieve the audience at just the right moments.
One of my favorite scenes during Saturday's performance found a 19th Century French version of American Idol (of sorts) taking place, pitting Christine against Carlotta. (The contest winner earns the lead in the forthcoming opera The Fairie Queen.) There was no real surprise when Christine emerged victorious, but the scene was played with a great amount of satisfying comedy and drama.
Phantom's biggest surprise comes in Act II, when Carriere shocks Christine in the Phantom’s underground lair, and explains the appalling origins of his story. Without giving up any spoilers, Payonk’s telling (and director M. Seth Reines' powerful staging) presents how Erik was born and unmasks the identity of his parents, and the scene is tense and heartbreaking. Payonk's deep, resonant interpretation adds necessary anguish to the tale, helping Christine (and the audience) both identify with Erik and understand his mortal threat.
At its essence, Phantom is a revealing beauty-and-the-beast love story. There is true passion between Christine and Erik, but theirs is clearly never going to be a sustainable relationship. The lovers' paths are too diverse and are too linked by tragedy, as well as a voyeuristic desire that threatens to force Christine to become Erik's physical and emotional prisoner.
Susan Holgersson's scenic design truly complements the ornate adornments of the old Fort Armstrong theatre, giving the intimacy of the Circa '21 stage a more grand, “opera house” impression. Her unit set allows for easy transitions between scenes, and, enhanced by the alternately warm and starkly moody lighting design by Ronnie Breedlove, it also holds a few surprises for the audience to relish.
Reines proves adept at utilizing his entire cast to create a fast-paced and energetic production, and must be very proud of his ensemble members who rarely stop moving throughout the show, whose characters appear to be truly living in the moment, and who add many fun, endearing layers to the performance. Circa '21's Phantom is a tragically beautiful theatrical spectacle that deserves to play to sold-out houses even without Webber's name attached. Personally, I enjoy croissants and éclairs. Both are created to satisfy an appetite, and this Phantom of the Opera adaption certainly satisfied mine.
Phantom runs at the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse (1828 Third Avenue, Rock Island) through March 5, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)786-7733 extension 2 or visiting Circa21.com.