The regional collegiate premiere of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1986 melodramatic megahit “The Phantom of the Opera,” which he co-adapted from the Gaston Leroux novel with Richard Stilgoe and Charles Hart, receives a strikingly designed yet off-kilter staging at Wright State University.
Director W. Stuart McDowell’s knack for creating attractive stage pictures is evident once again, but his decision to place the crux of the vocally impressive show in the hands of Casey Jordan is a big mistake. Jordan, familiar to WSU audiences for delightfully comedic work in “Anything Goes” and “Hairspray,” is simply out of his element attempting to embody the obsessive, maniacal, dungeon-dwelling Opera Ghost threatening the artists and owners of the Paris Opera House in the late 19th century. He oddly aims for a softer, introverted interpretation that leads him on the road to disadvantage because the Phantom, although emotionally wounded, is not a timid sentimentalist at his core. Without credible menace or a darkly brooding sensibility, the imposing role’s dramatic weight is basically non-existent. More startling is the fact that Jordan is completely devoid of passion opposite luminous soprano Samantha Helmstetter as Christine Daae. “Music of the Night” is particularly intended to be an Act 1 knockout, but Jordan, whose overdone hand gestures factor prominently in his performance, spends more time caressing the air instead of Helmstetter. In turn the song becomes a frustrating bore awkwardly worsened by the unnecessary presence of three Muses who repeatedly (or purposefully?) steal focus from Jordan. (I’m shocked McDowell changed the ending in favor of the Muses instead of Christine’s best friend Meg Giry, admirably portrayed by Taryn Lemmons.)
Thankfully, Helmstetter, fantastic two months ago in WSU’s “Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill,” steers the show in the right direction whenever she’s front and center. Her sublime vocals and earnest emotions are saving graces even when the plot deflates toward its sappy conclusion. “Think of Me” and “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again” are poignantly rendered, but I found “Twisted Every Way,” an underrated yet potent moment addressing Christine’s perplexity and torment, to be her finest number in terms of depth. Due to Jordan’s seductive ineptitude, she believably radiates more heat alongside the handsome Patrick Ross (Raoul) who joins her for a heartfelt, lyric-driven “All I Ask of You.”
Kathleen Ferrini as diva Carlotta and Andrew Quiett as Piangi create a humorously conceited bond. They are notably joined by Chrissy Bowen (Madame Giry), Drew Helton (Firmin) Sean Jones (Andre) and the aforementioned Ross for a sharply executed “Notes” and a wonderfully soaring rendition of “Prima Donna” nearly worthy of an encore.
McDowell’s expert tech team consists of set designer Don David, lighting designer Nicholas Crumbley, costumer Lisa Loen, sound designer James Dunlap and properties masters John Lavarnway and Kim Townsend. Choreographer Sarah Wildman specifically ensures “Masquerade” arises with unified flair. Musical director Ryan Heinrich’s terrific orchestra proves Lloyd Webber’s music will always be “Phantom’s” main attraction.
“The Phantom of the Opera” continues through May 27 in the Festival Playhouse Stein Auditorium of the Creative Arts Center at Wright State University, 3640 Col. Glenn Hwy., Fairborn. Performances are May 16-17 and 24 at 7 p.m., May 18-19, 25-26 at 8 p.m. and May 19-20, 26-27 at 2 p.m. Act One: 75 minutes; Act Two: 55 minutes. Tickets are $18-$20. For tickets or more information, call (937) 775-2500.