The Austin Chronicle


Phantom of the Opera: Window Display

January 30, 1998, Arts

Bass Concert Hall,
through February 22
Running Time: 2 hrs, 25 min

Phantom of the Opera

In the Christmases of my childhood, I recall standing at certain department store windows, transfixed by the elaborate and fanciful holiday displays therein. They were unlike anything in those windows at any other time of year: ornate scenes of carolers on snowscapes and parlors on Christmas Eve and — my favorites — Santa's workshop, where animatronic elves garbed in wine-red velvets and hunter green velours worked ceaselessly on carefully detailed rocking horses and tin soldiers and porcelain ballerinas, their elvin arms in constant, never-changing motion, swinging tiny hammers and paintbrushes back and forth, back and forth, always striking the same nail, painting the same spot, while around them in aneternal circle raced a brightly hued electric train. It didn't matter to me that they never broke out of those repetitive patterns; I was taken with the textures and the colors and the movement, and the sense of imagination behind it all.

Seated in Bass Concert Hall, watching Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical adaptation ofThe Phantom of the Opera, I felt myself back at those department store windows. Here was the voluptuous scenery — an opera house stage backed with towering palms and a lustrous painted drop of a desert sunset, before which dance maidens swathed in scarlet, bejeweled and betassled, and a massive mechanical pachyderm that nods its great grey head; a grand staircase washed in crimson light crowded with extravagantly costumed figures, Pierrots and Punchinellos, butterflies and Bo Peeps; the Phantom's sanctum underneath the opera house, lit by a hundred candles and guarded by a gate of crisscrossed steel three times as tall as a man.

There too were the characters engaged in repetitious movements — the Phantom sending notes to the opera house managers, making demands and terrorizing the opera when they aren't met; the Phantom confronting the budding young diva Christine, taking her to his lair; Christine being drawn to the Phantom, then repelled by him, drawn then repelled; Christine's suitor Raoul coming to her after her encounters with the Phantom again and again. And as with the store windows, I wasn't bothered by the repetition of these figures. They were simply operating within the conventions of the genre, this sort of Gothic romance, and, as with the elves, their familiarity made me comfortable. And, to be fair, these characters occasionally showed much greater depth, if not in the way they were written then in the way they were performed. Megan Starr-Levitt (who performs the role of Christine only on Saturday afternoons and Sunday evenings) expressed her character's joys and fears with a fullness beyond the genre's requirements. On the rooftop with Raoul, her voice hit the word "soar" and shot toward the heavens like a skyrocket. In a graveyard with the Phantom, her glazed stare and tenseness

conveyed an anxiety just a hair's breadth from madness. Brad Little's Phantom developed depth as the show progressed, with his final scene his most compelling, peppered with bitter humor and resentment and, eventually, remorse.

Honestly, I had not expected to enjoy this show, but I truly found myself taken with the textures and colors in Maria Björnson's sets and costumes and Andrew Bridge's lights, and the movement in Harold Prince's staging and Gillian Lynne's choreography, and by the sense of imagination behind all their work. And the voices and performances were engaging. Still, for all that caught my eye and ear, the show did not reach my heart. It might have been one of those store window displays, behind a pane of glass where I cannot touch it and it cannot touch me. --Robert Faires


Bates Recital Hall,
January 17

Funny, classical music these days — at least in my world — isn't considered music; it's considered "the arts." Shit. This is music.

The crowd is casual, and almost every seat is full. The musicians walk onto the stage and are normal people, but hold precious instruments that separate them from the rest of us. They sit and we wait quietly, patiently, until the first hum of tuning starts. The first soloist, Barrett Sills, sits with his cello in the center of the group and they begin to play. I watch the bows simultaneously move up and down, like they're dancing to the music they make. The sound is peaceful and soothing. This Horn Concerto in E-flat Major, K.495, is transcribed for the cello. I am disappointed; though the cello's dark sound is good, I want to hear a horn. Still, the piece is upbeat and tells an intricate story. The communication between all the players is tight and entertaining. The strings dominate, which would have made a horn solo a nice break. Sills is a serious man who emits the piece's intensity. He scrapes and pulls his bow, working hard. The stand-up bass and sweet oboe are the backbone, the strings are the blood, and the soloist and his cello the heartbeat and personality of this concerto.

The second piece, Andante for Flute in C Major, K.315, stars Karl Kraber, a tall, skinny, jolly fellow. He stands and we listen and watch his feet and cheeks go; he is a delight. The music is wonderfully playful. When the flute dominates, the notes are youthful. When everyone joins in, the music changes to a very mature sound, taking us through desires and concerns that are very adult; to me, the story is of a woman's coming of age. The piece is fun, but delicate — a perfect, flaky pastry.

The very young and attractive Colin Jacobsen is the soloist for Violin Concerto in A Major, K.219 "Turkish." I think about all the times I've heard how difficult playing the violin is as I watch Jacobsen stand onstage with no stress — he displays a full willingness that projects onto the entire piece. He is calm, as are the others, and the group has no conductor; they are all in it together. The second movement, I hope, will be dripping with sadness. It isn't. The only spice to the piece is in the third movement, when the generally quaint and dainty theme is interrupted by an exotic twist of sounds. Mozart may have purposely created such a simple-sounding violin concerto to make the exotic "Turkish" breaks more ironic.

After the intermission, the group re-enters the concert hall in good spirits, as if someone told a joke backstage. A glorious grand piano reigns on stage and I am excited. Mozart's Piano Concerto in E-flat Major, K.271 is played with soloist Gregory Allen. Allen is displeased with the position of the piano and, to the audience's delight, moves it. The piece sounds big and energy is high. The piano joins in and is such rain, such a pure, good sound. The first movement shows a clear interaction between the pianist and the rest of the group. The horns and oboes are positioned in the back and throughout the night I have loved hearing them blare through and blend with the strings. The second movement moves into the piano, starting with strings, then horn, then finally keys. The third movement is up and running from the start, and my mind begins to wander with the music. The piano takes in deep breaths and uses them for everything they are worth; the exhalation is long and intricate. Allen directs the orchestra with his free hand and clearly enjoys himself. Little ego is involved for these performers. No competition is apparent. Their job tonight is play Mozart right and play him well. They succeed. I close my eyes toward the end and just listen.— Elise Guillot


Dougherty Arts Center,
through Febuary 1
Running Time: 2 hrs

It's a minor miracle that any play gets off the ground. Temperamental actors and overworked directors, coupled with the necessity of props and costumes, can make for a messy few weeks that occasionally end in disaster. Relationships dissolve and rivalries blossom in the heat of production, even in the best of circumstances. So why do people still bother with theatre? Ah, there's the question.

The easy answer: because they have to. From that answer forward, however, it gets a little bit more difficult. Some do it for art, some for notoriety. Still others can't imagine life without the stage or can find joy in the community that develops around a production. Then there are those who are being punished, whether for sins in a past life or sins in the present. Just ask Petra. Forcing a batch of reluctant actors through their paces can be akin to the trials of Job. But this is Petra's penance for a chance glance at a blue cable channel. After watching her actors at work, her punishment seems to severely overcompensate for her crime.

Ruperto Reyes, Jr.'s script for Petra's Pecado, produced by Teatro Humanidad Cansada, is more than a play about producing a play. It is also a show about faith, trust, and charity, with a good dose of humanity on the side. Petra and her friends in Las Flores, a small town just this side of the Mexican border, discover the importance of community and connections through this exercise in stagecraft, as well as the power of humor.

Speaking of discoveries, director Rodney Garza has found the magic of theatre and knows how to use it to its fullest potential. There are scenes, such as Petra's confession to Kurt Kern's wooden Father Johnson, that almost pop from the stage and into the audience's hearts. Irene Gonzales' Petra is wonderful, chipper and earnest despite the chaos around her. Reyes Jr., as Petra's long suffering husband Rafael, Maria Elena Salcedo, as the village busy-body Clara, and San Juanita Alcala, as the befuddled Tacha, create clear characters with strong intentions while they crack jokes and deliver truly touching homilies. Raul R. Salinas' Chano makes a lively impression from the moment he comes on stage, and his endearing performance succeeds despite the string of off-color Spanish remarks that flies from his mouth.

So back we go to the original question. Why has Teatro Humanidad Cansada bothered to perform this minor miracle and get Petra's Pecado on its feet in the first place? Perhaps their goal was simply to tell a straightforward, feel-good fable for an evening's light entertainment. But there is more to it, some untouchable essence of spirit and community that radiates from the stage and the house, a dose of repentance and laughter that lightens the soul and is induced by this act of theatre. — Adrienne Martini

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