SALT LAKE CITY — My family and I recently saw a production of Phantom of the Opera at Spanish Fork High School. (That was excellent, by the way.) So we were up to speed on the story, the music, and the characters of the original musical. I wondered as I anticipated attending “The Phantom of the OBT” how its playwright/lyricist Eric R. Jensen could make such a romantically macabre story funny. I assure you, he did!
As I walked into the theater, there was a buzzing kind of electricity. Lots of people were there, including several groups of younger girls—around eleven years old. It felt like a school dance, and I mean this in a good way. The staff, were all super nice and escorted us to our seats. The playhouse sells popcorn, drinks, and candy, which my movie-going family appreciated this. There is nothing quite like entering a theater and smelling the delicious, buttery aroma of fresh-popped popcorn. The theater itself is quaint and lovely—tall with a balcony, lush velvet curtains, and comfy seats that tilt back when you sit down. Organ music was playing as we sat down. These surroundings got us all in the mood for the show.
Clarence Strohn, who plays Buquet and the Hobo, came out to say hello to the audience. He instructed us to listen for the bad guy Phantom music and say, “Boo.” He then chose a member from the audience who was supposed to say, ”I like him!” after we all booed. We then heard the good guy Raoul music, after which we were supposed to cheer, and the same woman in the front row was instructed to say, “Eh—I’ve seen better.” To be honest, this did involve the audience at the beginning. But once the play got going, not only did the booing and cheering feel a little like a chore and not a fun thing to do, it cut off some of the funny lines.
However, there were tons and tons and tons of laughs. The show’s beginning is a little slow as the characters are introduced and the plot established. But with the first song, sung by Carlotta (Kelly L. Bellis), Buddy (Patrick Harris), and Shekkie (Caleb Durrant), I was smiling. Every single song in “The Phantom of the OBT” was a parody of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s original score. The music was just different enough that I couldn’t hum it until I picked up the new tunes, but the lyrics! Hilarious! This production is funny, but being familiar with the original show makes this spoof far more entertaining. For instance, the original “Think of Me” became the spoof “Think Comedy,” which made me and the rest of my party crack up. It is also helpful if the audience members be familiar with Utah and LDS culture. This is not required, but they’ll understand all the jokes more fully.
The story follows the original; but it’s funny, not maudlin. And this show clips along much faster than the original Phantom of the Opera, too. As in the Lloyd Weber’s musical, Carlotta, the diva of the opera house, is threatened by the Phantom. Unfortunately for her, she is also heckled mercilessly by Buddy and Shekkie and basically hated by the rest of the cast. Poor Carlotta suffers greatly in The Phantom of the OBT, but trouper that she is, she continues to come out onstage with more and more injuries, wearing a walking cast and neck brace, adorned with jewels, of course. For Carlotta, the show must go on. I found myself feeling a little sorry for her. But Buddy and Shekkie, in true vaudeville style (including the honking horn after each punch line) were loved by many in the audience. In this age of slick, often rude lines that somehow constitute comedy, it was rather refreshing to see just the good, old, corny stuff. We all need to be reminded of where comedic theater started.
Christine Daee, played by Jamie Taylor, with her gorgeous voice and adorable animation, has been tutored in voice by the Phantom, played by an equally glorious singer and actor, Erik Summer. These two clicked. And as in the source material, I always want them to end up together. Until, of course, the Phantom goes and kills somebody.
Aaron Bellis is Raoul Marriott, the LDS returned missionary “catch” of the show with whom Christine immediately falls in love and within seconds, the two are engaged. This is an obvious dig at the quick-to-get-married-after-dating-a-short-time tradition in Utah. Even though Raoul can’t remember Christine’s name throughout most of the show, he loves her. He really does. No really, he does! Bellis didn’t seem to be a strong singer,and his duet with Christine was probably the one musical number that didn’t totally work. The Raoul character was something I didn’t fully understand. Was this show making a joke of their “great love story” that really wasn’t all that great, or was it actually a great love story, even though it didn’t seem to me there was much depth there? I’m sure there was a joke in there somewhere, but I’m not sure what it was. No matter who Christine “should” marry, I admit, I didn’t want her to choose Raoul, especially when the Phantom seems to genuinely care for the real Christine. But because he is a murderer and probably a non-member of the LDS Church, too, that forbidden love isn’t meant to be. I sigh at this. (Speaking of sighs, the sighing of the cast is another running gag. An exceedingly delightful one.)
Giry, played by Tiffany Rees, got many of the especially funny lines and owned a particularly cute running gag throughout the show where Mr. Reginald says, “What?” to something that has happened, and Giry comes up to him and yells the answer again. It happens several times, and it’s amusing because Rees is a tiny person but she has a huge, booming voice. Even though we saw this bit three or four times, her yelling was surprising, and funny. Rees also dances in the show the Phantom has written for Christine. She’s wearing a gown about two sizes too big for her and as she tries to dance daintily, she’s all elbows, knees, awkward movements, and kooky expressions on her face. Her dance alone is worth going to the show to see. Rob MacArthur and Liz Pascoe played Mr. and Mrs. Reginald and to be honest, these two characters troubled me somewhat. This show is clearly written for an LDS audience, and the Reginalds were the stereotypical unhappy couple–he, leering at all the young women, and she, screeching at him to straighten up. The actors played their parts well, but I found their bickering annoying and even somewhat disturbing. Clarence Strohn, as I said, played two characters, and he is one talented actor. Super physical and with great comedic timing, we totally enjoyed him even if he was a self-proclaimed drunk who smelled bad. He became somewhat of a hero, and who doesn’t want to root for the down and out hobo? Chelsea Baldwin plays the hapless Melody, who is always in Christine’s shadow, but does end up happy in the end, unlike the original. I won’t write any spoilers here—suffice it to say I like Jensen’s ending better that Sir Lloyd Webber’s.
The other cast members are: Zoe Dewitt as Meg, Keith Shepro as various cameos (and these characters are hilarious, and props to Shepro for getting up in a Narnia costume with no shirt on), Rocky Revels as the amusing tour guide with a very expressive face, and Tanya Felkner as the woman on the tour.
The reason why this show works is that it is filled with running gags, with digs at the NRA, the President, the Twilight Series, local culture, Lady Gaga, and other popular singers. Yes, even though the performers are all properly dressed in ball gowns and vests, there are gag lines about current topics. I wanted to write down all the running gags, but there were too many of them, and I don’t want to spoil it for you anyway. You need to just see them.
I have never been to the Off Broadway Theater and after seeing The Phantom of the OBT, I will amend this. I’m looking forward to their upcoming productions and will bring friends and family along with me. The Off Broadway Theater has a lovely facility, an enthusiastic cast, and shows the whole family can enjoy.