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Voices carry: Charles and Hayden in Phantom.

Spirit of Song
By James Yeara

Phantom
Lyrics and music by Maury Yeston, book by Arthur Kopit, directed by Terry Berliner

C-R 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.

“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.

Phantom, 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.

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.

Fits and Hearts

Last Train to Nibroc
By Arlene Hutton, directed by Seth Barrish and Michael Connors
Saratoga Stages, Janet Kinghorn Bernhard Studio Theater, through May 3

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:

“Is there a guy and a girl?” he asks.

“Well, yes,” says May.

“It’s 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 the play.

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.

—John Rodat


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