'Opera' Amok

Gaslight's 'Phantom' starts slow but ends on an energetic, love-filled note

Gaslight Theatre started out nearly 30 years ago doing gentle musical spoofs of 19th-century Western melodramas. Over time, the company has branched out to parodies of 1930s adventure serials and more recent science-fiction epics, but its current show drops a load of fruit and nuts down closer to the theater's roots. The Phantom of the Opera may not be a Western, but it's the right period, and the source material doesn't need to be tricked up much to suit the Gaslight's peculiar needs.

Writer-director Peter Van Slyke's adaptation has a bit more to do with the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical than with the original Gaston Leroux novel; in the beginning, the Phantom is clearly dangerous, but by the end, he's a sympathetic character, and everybody manages to live happily ever after, one way or another. (Come on, I'm not spoiling any surprises; surprise isn't what anybody goes to Gaslight for, anyway.)

As you surely know, Phantom of the Opera is set in the Paris Opera House, and the extensive lake-soaked caverns beneath it. A mysterious, masked figure haunts the theater, intimidating singers and staff and meanwhile preparing an innocent young woman, Christine, for a brilliant operatic debut--not to mention for life as the Phantom's mate. Christine, though, has her eye on a dashing young count named Raoul. The Phantom is displeased. Various bad things happen, involving a crashing chandelier, a shocking unmasking and some questionable organ playing.

Although indefatigable Gaslight music director/pianist Linda Ackermann works some stray Lloyd Webber references into the score, this is most assuredly not the Broadway version of the story. As always, the musical numbers are cobbled together from old pop hits, whether they're relevant or not. There's some justification for the Phantom swiveling his hips and declaring that he's a hunka hunka burnin' love, but one of the French house's Italian opera singers breaks into "Volare" for no better reason than it has a lot of Italian lyrics.

The show starts off slowly. The usual goofiness doesn't set in for at least 20 minutes, and the opening has the painful earnestness of an amateur production. Eventually, the energy picks up--the energy of the script, as well as the direction. You know things have really improved when a sobbing Christine blows her nose and shakes out the hanky over a front-row table of spectators. Well, that's an improvement by Gaslight standards, anyway.

David Fanning makes a suave, physically imposing Phantom, although he seemed just a tad hoarse during the late show last Saturday. As Christine, Deborah Klingenfus is, as usual, an adorable heroine who can easily outsing most of the other people on stage. Robert Shaw is a dashing Raoul, endearingly taken with himself but even more smitten with Christine.

It's nice to see David Orley break out of his usual evil-villain mold and revel in the part of an egotistical Italian tenor; Maria Alburtus is his tempestuous Italian-soprano counterpart, and she sings a pretty good version of "R-E-S-P-E-C-T" for a white woman. Mike Yarema, one of Gaslight's most versatile regulars, is a stitch in two wildly contrasting secondary roles; Dan Gunther acquits himself well in the rather thankless part of the opera-house impresario, and Joe Cooper plays the theater's caretaker in drag, which means he can be funny without even ad-libbing.

The post-show olio, a suite of pop songs stitched together by moldy old jokes, takes "Flower Power" as its theme. Yes, there is much long hair and tie-dyed clothing on stage, along with lazy-hippie one-liners and many of the more innocent examples of 1960s free-love songs. This is a family show, so even though Alburtus adopts an appropriately stoned expression for most of the olio, the song selection avoids reefer parables involving dragons, or mellow Scotsmen advocating the smoking of banana peels. You do get, among other gently groovy things, a lot of innocent folk-rock numbers like "The Unicorn" and "If I Had a Hammer." Cooper does a killer impersonation of Bob Dylan, and later shows up as Sonny with Alburtus posing as Cher, looking suitably bored and more interested in keeping her hair out of her mouth than in doing yet another rendition of "I Got You Babe." It could've been an outtake from The Sonny and Cher Show. Frightening.

It all wraps up with the two big numbers from Hair, reminding us that for all its silliness, Gaslight Theatre is basically about peace and love and outfits that cannot possibly be taken seriously.

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