KPBS AIRDATE: September 18, 1996
Dark musicals and disturbing drama — I’d say it’s a great week in the theater. But there’s one that got away — and I only hope it somehow makes the trip to San Diego. The fabulous, five Tony Award-winning Royal National Theatre production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel” came to Los Angeles and it’s now at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, but it hasn’t made it down here.
Magnificently designed and directed, and equally beautifully sung, this 1945 tear-jerker has upbeat songs and terrific dancing mixed with after-life experiences, spousal abuse, single motherhood and good folks gone bad. Distressing, timeless and not to be missed.
Speaking of restricted time-frames, you only have this weekend to see the real “Phantom.” It’s not Andrew Lloyd Webber monstrous spectacle, though it was written at exactly the same time — 1985; but it’s much, much better. Written by Arthur Kopit and Maury Yeston, this musical is also based on Gaston Leroux’s 1910 romantic melodrama, “The Phantom of the Opera.” But “Phantom” has a fleshed-out story, lilting and non-repetitive music, credible, motivated characters and an actual dramatic arc. Plus, it doesn’t take itself so ridiculously seriously.
This Phantom, spectacularly sung by Sean Smith, he of the spider-like fingers, actually has a sense of humor. He’s a true dramatic character. And Christina Saffran is his perfect counterpart, an angel-voiced pixie as Christine. Sure, the melodrama is still palpable, but this masked man has a childhood and a heartbreaking reunion with his father. The touching duet, “You’re My Own,” is a man’s moment, a rarity for a musical. It plays out a real male fantasy: having your father say he loves you, and being loved unconditionally by your mother and your mate. Sniffles and standing ovations up at Moonlight Amphitheatre, and deservedly so. The choreography may not be inspired, and the scenery may be downright cheesy, with those klunky curtain-drops, but the production, with its huge cast and strong musical backup, is wonderful.
Just as dark and eerie is the Globe’s open-air “Macbeth.” The witches set the supernatural tone here, severing a snake at the outset, and reappearing periodically to observe the proceedings, as the doomed Thane ascends politically and descends spiritually. Victor Garber is a thinking-man’s Macbeth, less a warrior than a ruminator. He handles the language well, being, along with the multi-roled Richard Easton, one of the only actors who doesn’t declaim and emote. Joan McMurtrey is a far less satisfying Lady M. Although her sleepwalking scene is strong, there is little believable buildup to it. The production is bleak, with its dim lighting, dusky plaids and wailing bagpipes, but the outdoor setting underscores the most effective scenes, those unearthly, spectral visions of ghosts and daggers and even Hecate, the rarely seen goddess of the underworld. Where Nicholas Martin’s production may falter linguistically, its soars ethereally.
Much more down-to-earth, but equally unnerving, is “Twelve Angry People,” a co-production of San Diego Black Ensemble Theatre and Ensemble Arts Theatre. Joe Powers has adapted an adaptation of Reginald Rose’s award-winning 1956 jury-room drama, “Twelve Angry Men.” Powers’ casting and direction are more forceful than his equal-opportunity title.
Like another jury-room drama, the Globe’s recent “Voir Dire,” this play has its predictable setups and caricatures, but it is far more dramatic, realistic and engaging. Here, the case at hand is a teenager accused of murdering his father. T.J. Johnson, Walter Murray and Lamont Thompson give particularly strong performances. The women work less well. But the issues raised, about race, class, prejudice and the laborious jury process, make you queasy all over again, in the wake of the O.J. trial. That case — and this play — continue to prey on our collective conscience. Good theater gets under your skin.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1996 Patté Productions Inc.