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Operatic Goofiness

The Gaslight Theatre again turns in hilarious family-friendly fun, this time with 'The Phantom'

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Those Gaslight folks have done it again. With their characteristic combination of creative camp, irreverence and just-plain goofiness—as well as the talent and skill to pull it off—they have come up with another show that makes us grin, groan and maybe even guffaw.

This time, it's The Phantom of the Opera. No, not the wildly successful Andrew Lloyd Webber musical that continues to find an audience on Broadway 24 years after it opened there. It's writer Peter Van Slyke's take on Gaston Leroux's novel, written in 1909-1910, in which a lonely, disfigured composer who dwells in the bowels of a Paris opera house casts a spell on a vulnerable young woman, promising to develop her vocal skills so brilliantly that she will become a star—if she will be true to him. Her "angel of music" performs some mysterious and unpleasant hocus-pocus to orchestrate an opportunity for her to step into the spotlight and secure the adoration of Parisian opera-goers—but her loyalty is challenged by a suitor who tries to win her heart, displeasing the Phantom mightily, who then makes life rather unpleasant for all who dwell in the world of the opera house.

Van Slyke's story is much simpler, because this is, after all, the Gaslight, where simple and straightforward plots serve merely as a platform for the shenanigans of the acting troupe as they play out the good-versus-evil tale with plenty of jokes, curious characters and ad-libs. Always integral to the evening's fun are the familiar songs whose original lyrics are replaced with rhymes that give the predictable proceedings a goofy charm, providing us with the aforementioned grins and groans.

Familiar faces always abound on the Gaslight's stage, and the capable cast of Phantom is populated with folks we have seen strut their Gaslight stuff for years. They lend their talents with great enthusiasm and energy.

David Orley is a vision in lavender satin and white ruffles as the opera house's resident basso profundo, and Sarah Vanek brings an effective light touch as Madame Carlotta, the resident diva whose job is threatened by the Phantom's protégée, Christine, played with sweetly sympathetic naiveté by Heather Stricker-Dispensa. Company members Jake Chapman, Mike Yarema and Tarreyn Van Slyke contribute competently to the show's winning ways, and Todd Thompson delivers a delightfully over-the-top Raoul, Christine's suitor. Longtime Gaslighter Joe Cooper outdoes himself as Madame Giry, providing lots of smiles as he transforms himself into the aging (and dowdy) grand dame of the opera house, capitalizing on Van Slyke's mining of little-old-lady jokes and contributing a few of his own.

David Fanning presents a strong and powerful Phantom, whom the audience is more than willing to boo as the bad guy. However, he inexplicably wears a wedding ring. And although he really knows how to work a cape, that cape would be much more impressive if it were nicely lined.

This show—and all Gaslight shows, actually—would be much less entertaining without the contributions of musical director Linda Ackermann, who ensures the cast does a more-than-respectable job with the numerous songs that are so much a part of the Gaslight fun. In addition, she underscores all of the dialogue on her keyboards, which not only subtly gives us clues about what's going on plotwise, but also lends a richness of texture that the simple and predictable story would have a difficult time providing if required to stand on its own. It's an invaluable part of the equation of the Gaslight experience, and Ackermann—along with her sidemen, Blake Matthies and Jon Westfall—excels, unobtrusively but substantially contributing to the success of a Gaslight performance.

Also contributing in a big way is Tom Benson's scenic design, which results in impressively clever magic on the Gaslight's small stage. Phantom is a technically challenging show, including entrances from trap doors and the calamitous (well, modestly calamitous) crash of the majestic chandelier. Benson and his crew execute it all effectively, and also have a lot of fun with very low-tech special effects. Lighting designer David Darland complements Benson's design and creates some great effects of his own, and Renee Cloutier's costumes are also impressive.

As always, your price of admission to a Gaslight show includes some post-play fun in a musical variety-show format. This time, it's a nod to old-school Las Vegas-style entertainment, which, besides ensuring there will be a lot of colorful vinyl boots, gold lamé, and sequins and feathers, features hilarious impersonations of the likes of Sonny and Cher, the Four Seasons, Neil Diamond and three stages of Elvis. Ackermann and company provide the accompaniment here as well.

Sure, the Gaslight is not highbrow entertainment, but it is surely highfalutin fun—for all ages, to boot. The Gaslight's Phantom of the Opera will never surpass the multi-billion-dollar box-office take of Lloyd Webber's version, but it's a well-done example of Gaslight's signature style.

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