The review that ruined my weekend.

You can read the review that (eventually) got published here.

This is what I actually thought about it:

Anne Arundel Community College’s Spring production, The Phantom of the Opera, opened Friday night at the Robert E. Kauffman Theater. The prologue of  Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera takes us to Paris in 1911, at an auction within the dilapidated Paris Opera House. From here, we’re swept further back in time by the unveiling of Lot 666, the infamous chandelier. This prop is the stuff of Broadway legend; the great chandelier which, later in the show, plays an unforgettable part in the Phantom’s terrorizing of the opera house. The music swells. The lights change. And a rather anemic looking chandelier slowly – slowly – rises above an empty stage while the overture plays. This imbalance – part of the production hitting the mark and another part falling short – is indicative of the problems that will plague the rest of this production.

The Phantom of the Opera is theatrical big leagues. You either go big or go home, because if any part of the production is out of balance with the rest, it risks the quality of the show as a whole. Having said this, one may wonder why a community college would try put it on at all. But the answer is easy. For all the technical and artistic difficulties inherent to Phantom, it’s a familiar show and a fun one, and a wonderful bridge between musical theater and traditional opera. Students should have a shot at it if for no other reason than to test their capabilities and see how far they still have to go.

And this production does rise to the challenge more often than not. Gabe Taylor as the Phantom is amazing. His acting is spot on and his voice carries the perfect intensity for the role, managing to be  subdued yet menacing. Jeffrey Walter as Raoul is charming, clever, and courageous. Emily L. Sergo is perfectly cast as the diva Carlotta; she’s always appropriately over the top, “strutting about the stage” and acting like she owns the place in all her scenes. Kristina Tardif Banks and Reed Sigmon play the often underappreciated roles of Mme Giry and Maestro Reyer, both bringing a nearly comical sense of severity and impatience to their respective roles. Many of the performances are even more impressive when you consider that they’re all still students.

There’s a lot of good vocal talent on stage, the main cast especially. No one’s technique is quite up to the challenges of the score, but everyone does their best and they manage to pull it off.  Vocal coach Mary Anne Barcellona would be well advised to give everyone a refresher course on diction, however. There were several moments, particularly in ensemble scenes, where lines were lost entirely in a sea of mumbling. Having microphones is no excuse to get sloppy.

The orchestra, under the direction of Blair Skinner, is absolutely wonderful. My only complaint is that the volume occasionally overwhelmed the singers – brass, I’m looking at you. Otherwise, my hat is off to everyone in the pit. Michael Klima did a great job as lighting designer, and Sean J. Urbantke created some amazing sets. Some of the set pieces are very large and the transitions are slow, but the final effects are worth it. Kristi Schaffner’s choreography is lovely and well executed, and the costumes by A.T. Jones are beautiful, though some of the many, many dresses could use a steam before the next show. And while we’re talking about costumes, the quick changes are impressive in theory but could definitely use more practice. There’s some struggle going on which distracts the performers and consequently distracts the audience.

I wish that I could in good conscience end the review here. The students of AACC have worked hard and it shows, despite my minor complaints above. But there are two very big problems which undermine this otherwise impressive student production of The Phantom of the Opera.

The first problem is director Doug Byerly’s staging, which breaks a cardinal theatrical rule. Never sing or act with your back to the audience. And I saw an awful lot of backs. By facing upstage, the audience is deprived of the actors faces, missing out on key reactions and emotional displays. And going back to diction, even with microphones, it makes a difference in clarity, volume, and diction when your actors are facing upstage or into the wings. Dialogue was lost. Emotions were lost. It’s bad staging which underserved and undermined the cast.

In addition, too much of the action happens upstage and those actions get lost. A perfect example of this is in Act 1, during that first brief reveal of the Phantom’s face.  The family sitting behind me had to explain to a member of their group, who knew nothing of the show, what was happening, as no one could clearly see what had occurred. The audience should not need foreknowledge of a show to make sense of staging.  Finally, I’m assuming there must be something wrong with stage left, because with only a few exceptions, the majority of the action and staging took place stage right. It was, in a word, awkward.

The second problem is casting of Christine. At a glance, Laura Sparks seems ideal. She has the ingénue look and when she stays in head voice and doesn’t belt, her voice is well suited to the music. But she can’t act, and in this role, it’s unforgivable.

Though the title of the show may be Phantom, the story is truly about Christine Daae , the manipulation of her mind and emotions at the Phantom’s hands, and her breaking free from it. Those who know the show understand that Christine is an incredibly complex character, who both fears the Phantom but has been made reliant on him. Sparks’ portrayal gives us no hint of this. As Christine, her emotions swing between two extremes: giddy naiveté and screaming hysterical terror. When not forced by the script to emote, she seems to suffer from Deer-In-the-Headlights Syndrome, either smiling blithely at the audience or staring vacantly. A kid sitting near me audibly asked what was wrong with her as she felt herself up during “Point of No Return”. And in her final scene, when Christine says goodbye to the Phantom, Sparks’ reaction is to grimace and scrunch her shoulders up to her ears as she walks offstage. There’s no compassion, no sadness, no relief at being free; just an immature gesture of disgust. Considering that Sparks already has a degree in vocal performance and a good deal of experience on the stage, I expected much better.

And thus, we have an imbalanced performance. Taylor as the Phantom gives us a terrifying yet tragic madman. Walter as Raoul is compassionate and courageous, and it’s easy to root for him as he tries to save Christine. Sparks just gives us a pretty face and a nice voice. Her Christine lacks any emotional depth, coming across instead as an immature flake. In the end, I was left wondering why the Phantom and Raoul were even fighting for her.

The Phantom of the Opera is one of the greats for a reason, as the music and story can stand even when aspects of the production fall short. I applaud AACC for trying their hand at such an ambitious show; in nearly every aspect, they’ve done better than I would’ve ever anticipated from a student production. But when casting in the future, make sure your actors are up to the challenges of their characters.

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About Morgan Maria D'Isidoro

Morgan Maria D'Isidoro has lived in Baltimore, MD for most of her life, saving a handful of failed escape attempts. Given the murder rates, she'll probably die here too. Morgan is a writer of speculative fiction and poetry, a musician of dubious quality, cat aficionado, art history fangirl, kitchen sorceress, recovering pyromaniac, accomplished liar, and an all around person of questionable employability.
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