Gaston Leroux probably could never have imagined, when he wrote Phantom of the Opera more than a century ago, the long life his tale would have. He might not have recognized his original from some of the adaptations, all of which have taken liberties with the storytelling, including the musical Phantom, now onstage at the Manatee Performing Arts Center.
No, it’s not the Andrew Lloyd Webber version that’s more well-known to theatergoers, although its operetta-like score, by Maury Yeston, is frequently as strong. The Arthur Kopit book for this show is less about horror and more about heart-tugging, and although it’s never appeared on Broadway, it has had more than 1,000 productions elsewhere.
The curtain opens on late 19th-century Paris, where Christine Daae (Sophia Masterson) is singing a light air on the colorful, bustling streets. She’s just a humble song seller, but by good luck along strolls the Count de Chandon (Tristan Martin), who’s enchanted by her voice (and most likely some other aspects of the young woman). He’s also a patron of the Paris Opera House, so he sends Christine with his card to meet the manager there and receive singing lessons.
From the brightness of above ground to the darkness beneath the opera house, we next meet Erik, the masked Phantom (James Alexander Hyde). He’s dwelt in the catacombs for years, haunting the opera house when needed to protect his privacy, aided by longtime manager Gerard Carriere (Chris Caswell). That subterranean existence is threatened by new opera house owners, the wicked witch Carlotta (Kris Sethi) and her husband (Cory Woomert), who promptly fire Carriere, enraging Erik. And when Carlotta opens her mouth to sing—well, as Erik himself says, in one of the show’s more humorous moments, “I think her voice is worse than my face.”
Christine, on the other hand, inspires the music-loving Erik, and soon he is giving her lessons and, of course, falling in love with her. But he’ll never let her remove his mask…
Yeston and Kopit’s sensibilities blend well together in Phantom, whether on haunting numbers like You Are Music and You Are My Own, Carlotta’s in-your-face diva turns such as This Place Is Mine or the poignant My Mother Bore Me (inspired by the William Blake poem The Little Black Boy). And for the most part the Manatee Players orchestra, led by Aaron Cassette, is up to the task of rendering the score (there are rare moments where it can be difficult to distinguish a singer’s lyrics, although that may be partly a sound problem).
And the cast, under the direction of Steve Dawson, is up to the task, too. This is one of those fortunate community theater productions where there’s no weak link in the singing voices of the leads. Hyde, who’s done strong work locally before in Les Miserables and Catch Me If You Can, deepens and broadens his range here, and while he may be young for the role of Erik, you don’t necessarily know that when he’s masked. He delivers passionately on his solo numbers, and his duets with both Masterson (who meets the challenges of Christine’s vocals beautifully) and Caswell, at the end of the evening, are bound to move the audience.
Sethi is, as you would expect from Carlotta, over-the-top outrageous, providing both comic relief and someone to hiss. Martin, in a fairly small role, is nevertheless charming and believable, and Diana Dizon provides some lovely moments in her ballet scene as Erik’s long-lost mother. The set, costumes, lighting and choreography also do the show justice.
Phantom continues through May 8; for tickets call 748-5875 or go to manateeperformingartscenter.com.