Theatre Review: ‘Phantom’ at the Riverside Dinner Theater

Quinn Vogt-Welch and Patrick A’Hearn in ‘Phantom.’ Photo courtesy of Riverside Dinner Theater.

“All in all it wasn’t so bad, being born…because I got to hear music, and I got to hear Christine.” – Phantom

Fans of Gaston Leroux’s gothic, haunting romance from 1911 and of its many popular retellings will most likely be aware of Yeston and Kopit’s Phantom, which is now playing at the Riverside Dinner Theatre under the direction of Patti D’Beck.

One of the best and most enjoyable productions I’ve had the pleasure of seeing this year…

At the risk of not doing enough justice to this telling of the story as an accomplished version in its own right, I have decided not to steer away from comparisons with the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, Phantom of the Opera, which is undoubtedly the more well known of the lot.  I find that when it comes to multiple tellings of any popular story, much of the enjoyment of such enduring tales comes from the ability to enjoy them again and again as told from different perspectives and with different unique characteristics, and I believe that many of you who are curious about Phantom would appreciate knowing something about what this version has to offer-I know I was, and that’s why I had to see it.

Patrick A’Hearn in ‘Phantom.’ Photo courtesy of Riverside Dinner Theater.

First, having read the novel myself, I was intrigued and delighted by some elements of the novel that are present in this version that are not in Webber’s.  Most notably, get ready for a more human Erik (Patrick A’Hearn).  Yes, the Phantom actually has a name, and no, Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit didn’t make it up.  No less twisted in his propelling movement toward ultimate doom, Erik is much more vulnerable than the seductive, mysterious, and–let’s face it–rather controlling, stalker-boyfriend type in Webber’s musical.  Yes, we all love “The Music of the Night,” but I have to say, it is refreshing to have a chance to see why he has such a draw on Christine (Quinn Vogt-Welch), other than some vague implication of his having near-supernatural hypnotic abilities and, for all the mask-wearing, being pretty attractive.  And speaking of Christine, I was blown away by the opening of her story, which has her actively composing songs and selling them on the street in pursuit of her love of music…and it is ultimately this true passion for music and singing that creates the foundation upon which her friendship with Erik is built, not unlike two Star Trek geeks falling in love over animated debates about hull integrity.  Awww.

If I’m not careful, I’ll get off on a tangent about how Phantom of the Opera, the original story from 1911, really is a love story between Christine and Erik, and not a story just about a psychotic dungeon-master with a really good voice and a fixation on this innocent ingénue…but I must leave that to you to decide.  This version certainly features a lot more interaction between the characters.  This more human, more behind-the-scenes telling of the story has a similar treatment for Carlotta (Andrea Kahane) and her husband Cholet (Jason Michael), the Count de Chandon (Nathaniel Austin Mason), and former opera manager Gerard Carriere (Robert Beard), who turns out to be one of the most important characters in the story. USA, LLC

The cast of ‘Phantom.’ Photo courtesy of Riverside Dinner Theater.

Without a doubt, Phantom is an enchanting experience with, I imagine, special appeal for those who are already somewhat familiar with the story and love everything-Phantom-of-the-Opera.  There are very strong reasons for seeing this version.  There are also some ways in which, perhaps, it falls a little short and is weak in places where the Webber version is strong.  One of these is in the music itself; not that Maury Yeston is not a strong songwriter, who has Nine and Titantic The Musical to his credit among other successful Broadway musicals…but let’s just say his style, at least for this show, is a little less “epic” than we might expect.

Tuneful songs, while catchy and sung beautifully, seem a little too Disney-like in places where the emotional content is potentially much more profound and adult.  Now that I think about it, actually, that’s probably my only real complaint, if even that.  I did not mind the fact that there are moments of lightheartedness-hey, why can’t the Phantom have a sense of humor?  I liked the fact that I felt a little pity for Carlotta, and saw her struggle with her own jealousy and how she must keep from losing face when Christine proves to be the better talent.  This fact makes it unfortunate when Carlotta’s main song makes her sound like a two-dimensional Wicked Witch of the West.

Enough about the story, however; some words must be said about this incredible production.  Riverside certainly proves ambitious, and I feel that they took great pride and care in their choice of this production.   An excellent use of the space is made, with a lot of excitement added to the show by the way some of the action takes place in the aisles.  The set design, pardon me for gushing, is breathtaking in my humble opinion; perhaps because, as the director notes in the program, it was made with a real awareness of the 1860 Paris opera house and in the context of 19th century France.  We see the famous chandelier scene from a different perspective, as we join the players backstage in the action, rather than becoming part of the fictional audience over which the chandelier makes its deadly descent.

I was enthralled, truly, by Vogt-Welch’s soaring, thrilling, well-controlled vocals, which is exactly how one should feel about Christine Daae.  A’Hearn is passionate, committed and beautiful in both music and acting. Beard and Mason are wonderful to listen to–and likely to bring a tear to your eye–while Kahane and Michael are as endearing as contemptible antagonists can get.  Also, despite the sparing emphasis on spectacle in this musical, I enjoyed the ballet dancers, male and female, who made up such a large part of the cast.  In fact, my favorite moment is the chilling story of Erik’s mother, Belladova (Christin Pristas and Mary Furey) that begins the second act, and was very impressed by dancer Pristas and young Nicholson, who portrays young Erik.  Similar things can be said about the cast and ensemble all around.

One of the best and most enjoyable productions I’ve had the pleasure of seeing this year, I highly, highly recommend that you see this show while you can.  There is a reason why this story, like Robin Hood, King Arthur and other classics of Western literature, continue to captivate our imagination.  This production of a show that is still just catching on is a rare treat.  The venue of the Riverside Dinner Theatre is itself a special experience, with excellent service and a delicious, generous menu.

Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with intermission.

Phantom is playing through October 14, 2012 at the Riverside Center, 95 Riverside Parkway, Fredericksburg, VA 22406. For tickets, call 888-999-8527 or click here.

About Erica S.

Erica S. has spent a lot of her time looking for ways to combine her loves of the performing arts, literature, and world cultures in both her professional and personal life. She received a B.A. in English from George Mason University in 2002, and went on to study folklore in graduate school, where she discovered professional storytelling. When not working at her day job, she finds opportunities to perform as a storyteller and vocalist. She also sings with a local choir called the Six Degree Singers, and sometimes finds time to read for pleasure and write.