carry: Charles and Hayden in Phantom.
Lyrics and music
by Maury Yeston, book by Arthur Kopit, directed by Terry Berliner
Productions, Cohoes Music Hall, through May 18
As inaugural productions go, 1C-R
Productions’ Phantom is auspicious. Wisely using the
charms of a neglected local gem, the haunted Cohoes Musical
Hall, this non-Andrew Lloyd Webber musical enchants with pure
singing. Staged simply, costumed richly, and sung divinely,
this Phantom is a must-see for anyone who loves words
and notes sung with a sterling clarity and an unadorned beauty.
is the watchword of this production. Time and again the audience
whispers the word at the end of a song, and it was the most
oft-heard phrase during intermission. Phantom’s brisk
two-hour running time keeps the focus on the singing, as befits
an operetta set in the Paris Opera House, circa 1900. With
a minimum of obtrusive stagecraft, this Phantom needs
no crashing chandeliers nor thick swirls of fog nor a million-dollar
underground river to enchant. This 15-person cast, with two
pianists in the pit, engage an audience the old-fashioned
way: They can sing and they can play.
written at the same time as Webber’s Phantom of the Opera,
features the same beauty-and-the-beast elements of its more
famous namesake. The story centers on raven-haired ingénue
Christine Daee (Tamara Hayden), who sings “Melodie de Paris”
to the Parisian crowd as she tries to sell the tune and lyrics
she has just written.
Her lovely first-soprano voice rings out as she bounces around
the bare, trilevel stage. Her skipping is like a folk dance
as she moves among the citizens in their late- Victorian costumes
(the details of which are highlighted by the bare stage).
Hayden moves as she sings, with a grace and charm that befit
Christine longs to sing, and her voice, as well as her comely
hazel eyes, attract an offer from Count de Chandon (Braden
Miles) of vocal lessons at the Paris Opera House. Christine
is soon negotiating the jealousy of the other ingénues over
the count’s affections, and the politics of performance: The
Paris Opera House has just been purchased by the faded but
deep-in-denial Carlotta (Mary Brazeau) and her equally talentless
husband, Cholet (Jon South). “Like every leading role/This
place is mine,” Carlotta sings, her face sagging as much as
her voice in a perfect performance by the typecast Brazeau.
Carlotta’s comic clunkiness makes for the perfect counterpoint
to Christine’s pristine singing.
While Webber’s version relies on special effects and mawkish
romance—more eye candy than soul—the Kopit-Yeston version
is perfectly suited for the Victorian confines of the venue.
Without clunky sets or hooky tunes, Phantom balances
its appeal on singing, and the voices here are excellent.
It is bliss to sit in the curved, padded pews of Cohoes and
listen to the Phantom (Jim Charles) sing/teach Christine during
“You are Music,” their voices caressing notes in the lesson
on singing. Even if the plot ultimately plods to a melodramatic
conclusion—and even if it makes perfect sense for everyone
to love Christine while Christine’s own love remains farfetched—this
Phantom gives lessons to other troupes on how to select,
cast, and stage a musical.
Train to Nibroc
Arlene Hutton, directed by Seth Barrish and Michael Connors
Stages, Janet Kinghorn Bernhard Studio Theater, through May
Saratoga Stages recently deb-uted in the area with Paul
Pry, an ambitious and challenging piece boasting deep
textural spectacle and a fast-and-loose approach to conventional
narrative progression; the company’s second and current production,
Last Train to Nibroc, challenges expectations as well—by
playing it straight, simple and sweet.
The tender heart of the play is foreshadowed in the first
of three minimally staged scenes: When failed army flyer Raleigh
(Emory Van Cleve) first encounters the jilted May (Jenny Eakes)
on a train from Los Angeles bound back to their homes around
Corbin, Ky., she is reading an “inspirational” book. She,
an aspiring missionary, is indignant at his suggestion that
the novel is a romance, but Raleigh stands fast in his opinion:
there a guy and a girl?” he asks.
yes,” says May.
a love story,” Raleigh states. QED.
And, of course, Last Train is a love story—a pleasantly
unironic one. The play is set in the early days of War World
II and the couple is traveling on the same train that is carrying
the bodies of writers F. Scott Fitzgerald and Nathaniel West
(who died on the same day in 1940) back east. Each of those
writers lifted the veil on the American Dream, allowing us
to stare at its heavily tarted-up and sometimes unsavory face;
my assumption was that a similar tone would prevail throughout
Instead, Last Train works as a kind of answer to the
dystopian cosmopolitanism of those authors, offering up a
quiet celebration of home—in all its déclassé provincialism—and
the love of a good and loyal woman.
Raleigh is himself an aspiring writer, and when his as-yet
undiagnosed epilepsy (his “fits”) gets him dismissed from
the service, he heads east with the intention of pursuing
that dream. He decides to ride straight through to New York
City, where real writers live. However, his chance encounter
with the primly attractive May, who is from a neighboring
town in Kentucky, lures him back home under the pretext that
he will accompany May to the next Nibroc festival, a wild
and slightly disreputable country fair. (Nibroc is Corbin
backwards, Raleigh informs May, who suspected some heathen
influence. It’s a tidy little suggestion that the familiar,
altered, can be exotic.)
The actors are amiable and likeable, successfully conveying
a sense of bruised innocence and confused inexperience. The
tall and handsome Van Cleve’s gee-shucks demeanor gave him
a Jimmy Stewart air perfectly suited to the introductory scene,
and Eakes’ portrayal flitted between curious ingénue and rigorously
religious stick-in-the-mud to charming comic effect.
And each actor handled the third and final scene with aplomb,
a difficult task. The happy ending is reached only after crisis
and misunderstanding, after the painful gain of experience.
For the final scene to work, the audience has to believe that
the characters have mellowed, become wiser and more complete
people. Eakes and Van Cleve handle this gracefully, and the
ending is touching and funny and upbeat and believable—because
the melancholy of wisdom is honored.
The one hitch is the second scene, the catastrophic scene.
Though Eakes’ country-mouse stuffiness serves the plot and
seems a natural extension of the character in the first scene,
Van Cleve’s Raleigh hasn’t progressed much. His epilepsy continues
to cost him, and the frustration builds—or it should. In Van
Cleve’s portrayal, the anger, frustration and desperation
of the character are buffed out by a gentle affability and
a bumpkin’s guffaw. When he does express his pain, it’s an
aberration rather than the result of an appropriately increasing
tension. Here, I believe, the specters of Fitzgerald and West
should be retrieved from the refrigerated car—it is, no doubt,
what they were there for.