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THEATER REVIEW: Phantom of the Opera

by Chris Conley

Christine has made her choice she has given her heart to the grotesquely disfigured phantom. She picks her tutor and patron over the handsome, politically connected prince. She sings,

Pitiful creature of darkness,
What kind of life have you known?
Give me the courage to show you
You are not alone.

And, with his mask off, she kisses the Phantom full on the lips.

Its the critical scene. The Phantom, under thick stage makeup, needs to show bliss. But Christine has the complicated part emotion, compassion, and a sudden surprising determination all have to be conveyed in a few seconds. She has to sell it. If she doesnt, the plays ending doesnt make much sense. When performed correctly, its an exhilarating end to a fabulous show.

The New York critics savaged Sarah Brightman, the original Christine, because her acting was never as good as her singing. Shed make herself wide-eyed and became slowly deliberate in the critical scene. The opening-night New York Times review said she twisted her face like a chipmunk. Other very talented Christines have faltered at the moment. I am happy to report Wausau-Newman senior Maggie Ward was up to the role. It was unmistakable to the audience what had just happened. The key plot point was unmistakable.

Christine, aside from the ending, is not a difficult acting role. But shes the evenings principal songbird, and Ward is an outstanding singer. (Maggie Ward plays the role of Christine at alternating performances; Bethany Buch is also an exceptional singer.)

The Phantom is a much more difficult part. Jonathan Smith has to reveal himself through mirrors, vanish in puffs of smoke, and show his tormented emotions from behind a mask. Smith has good stage presence; our eyes are naturally drawn to him even when the central action of the scene is elsewhere. Good leading men in high school are hard to find. Consider how many drama departments dont do The Music Man because a good Professor Harold Hill isnt available. Thats one of the shortcomings of this production: many of the female cast members were noticeably stronger singers than their male counterparts.

This is the first year that the Broadway version of Andrew Lloyd Webbers Phantom of the Opera is being made available for community theater. I suspect many colleges and local theater groups will shy away because its difficult to do well. And there were times on opening night when I thought CWETAs Phantom was hitting the limits of a high school production; thats its goals were just beyond its grasp. There were minor technical problems in the opening night performance and enough of them to be noticeable to the audience.

There are several delightful performances. Taylor Keefe has a big singing voice and played the part of a pampered diva perfectly. Dan Thompson and John Rosenkranz made a great team as Msrs. Fermin and Andre. They were very good at finding the humor in their parts. (Keefe, Thompson and Rosenkranz alternate with other cast members at some performances.) The orchestra, under the direction of Patrick Phalen, was outstanding.

Finally, a word about the Central Wisconsin Educational Theatrical Alliance. They pick the very best from our area high school drama programs, and place them in very difficult productions. A football player can aspire to be all-state. A speller can go to the national bee. Public speakers can go to a state championship for the debate team. Theres very little for the drama student who wants to measure themselves. CWETA is providing this opportunity. I look forward to their productions each year.

Chris Conley
Operations Manager, Midwest Communications-Wausau
2.18.2011

By MirandaHolden (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons