There’s nothing like your first time with the Phantom.
Get your mind out of the sewer. I’m not talking about a masked guy whispering that age-old line “Psst, wanna see where I compose?” followed by a twisted rendezvous in the bowels of the Paris Opera House.
Instead, my focus is on someone seeing the stage production of “The Phantom of the Opera” for the first time. That someone is Kent Gaston. I took the Seven section designer and copy-editing guru to press night of the Fresno production. Our analysis afterward about the show turned out to be so astute and perceptive I wanted to share it with you. I’m sure it will be preserved for “Phantom” fans centuries from now.
DONALD: So, Kent, we scored pretty good seats to “Phantom.” Row D ain’t bad. Were you really a “Phantom” newbie? How did you go nearly 30 years without seeing the stage production or movie?
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KENT: It’s a mystery, something about the Angel of Music (or Baseball) leading me astray. Nothing pulls one into present reality like sitting literally directly underneath a 2,000-pound, swaying, blinking, sparking (and apparently iconic) chandelier. The original French play, you might be aware, was by Gaston Leroux, or as we called him, Uncle Leroy.
DONALD: I heard you (or was it your son, Alex, who joined us) exclaim something to the effect of “That’s so cool” at some point during the production. Do you recall any gasp-aloud moments?
KENT: I think nearly more than I could count. The character of Christine (Katie Travis) was stunning in every way, as was the Phantom (Chris Mann); the humor was completely unexpected and my goodness, the (tell me what the word is here, actual critic!) “stagecraft?” was spectacular. I’ve never seen anything like that set and the staging.
DONALD: To offer a little context to folks out there in Bee Land: Kent can be quite, um, fixated on shows he likes. He got that way after seeing “RENT.” (Did you watch every version on YouTube, Kent? I think I heard you whistling “Seasons of Love” the other day in the men’s room.) I heard through the grapevine that your weekend became a “Phantom” extravaganza. Care to enlighten us?
KENT: I did watch lots of “RENT” on YouTube a few years back. (That whistling was “Light My Candle”; I’m not a very good whistler.) I didn’t catch every version of every “Phantom” song over the weekend, but almost every version of my favorite song, “All I Ask of You.” That song, which I think is pivotal to the story, sung by Raoul and Christine on the roof of the opera house, is absolutely gorgeous at Saroyan Theatre and in the 2004 movie (Emmy Rossum and Patrick Wilson), which, ahem, I watched four times over the weekend. And, er, well, plus the 2011 25th anniversary version at Royal Albert Hall (obsess much?).
DONALD: Let me know if we need to do an intervention. I’m curious: Some people have knocked this slightly scaled-down production because it isn’t as visually spectacular as the original. Thoughts?
KENT: Well, the original … Ummm, I have no idea about the original, but to people like me who might be more occasional visitors to theater let me say something like “The colors! The music! The dancers! The orchestra! Carlotta (Jacquelynne Fontaine)! The fireworks! The boat! I can understand how someone could be too calloused to appreciate this production, but I can’t really help them. Good for them, they go to LOTS of theater!
DONALD: I agree. When I saw the stairs materialize out of that slowly spinning round tower of a set, I made a little chirping noise, like a “Dancing With the Stars” contestant who just got a “9” from Len. OK, down to some nitty-gritty plot questions. If you were working in an opera house, say, and people were getting hanged and hit by stuff from above, wouldn’t you be out of there faster than you could say “I wish someone would invent workmen’s comp”? Yet when the second act picks up again several months later, everyone seems to still be hanging around. Did that strike you as odd?
KENT: Extremely. You can see why this is a show for obsessives, because wowie, that Phantom. You’re seriously so committed to your choice of cast, score, etc. that you’re willing to kill the poor stagehand?? And on top of all that, what was it, a 20,000-francs-a-month salary? Ever run that through a historical conversion website? Perhaps like most love stories, a bit of suspension of logic is recommended. Mr. Spock, do not attend.
DONALD: Another thing: Raoul seems to be quite a catch because he’s rich, handsome AND can sing. But there isn’t much room for him in the stage production to really develop a hot-and-heavy chemistry with Christine. He actually comes across as a bit of a jerk. (“Hey, Christine, why don’t you be our decoy so we can flush out this madman?”) Do you think the movie version did a better job in that regard?
KENT: Indeed I do; from what I can tell the new touring “Phantom” may have shortchanged Raoul just a tad. I’m not sure if the producers were a bit uncomfortable with how fragile Christine was and wanted to leave more of a choice in her hands, or what. But that’s a good point you make about Raoul being rich, handsome and a good singer. In the movie his competition for Christine’s attention, the Phantom, is Gerard Butler, and let’s just say that as a singer he makes a great action star.
DONALD: Speaking of the Phantom, I wonder if it’s hard for a guy who spends so much time beneath street level to get on a plane and go on tour. Where would you recommend the character visit in Fresno to feel at home?
KENT: Hmmmm, what about the underground parking lot next to the courthouse downtown; Forestiere Underground Gardens, the bowels of Warnors Theatre? Can a dude, especially a spooky masked one, visit those tunnels beneath Chinatown?
DONALD: And to top it off, a concert by Glen Delpit and the Subterreaneans. Well, Kent, I’m glad to know you’re a “Phantom” veteran now. Glad you liked the show. But if you wear a mask to work tomorrow, I’m going to avoid you in the elevator.