When Gaston Leroux sat down to write his 1910 novel “The Phantom of the Opera,” little did he know how much comedy he would inspire.
Now, the Great American Melodrama takes its turn with (as the poster out front puts it) “The Hilarious Parody of the Most Popular Musical of All Time.” The production is directed by Dan Schultz.
The story has been adapted and parodied countless times over the years in various media. In 1986, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe turned it into a musical sensation. Their score features such well-known songs as “Music of the Night,” “All I Ask of You” and “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again” -- none of which are parodied in this show.
Instead, we get parodies of other show tunes and pop songs. On the upside, you don't have to be familiar with the “Phantom” score to get the jokes. On the downside, if you are familiar with the score, you'll be left waiting all evening for it to be referenced. (Curiously, some of the tunes do turn up as background instrumentals. Perhaps Lloyd Webber only gets litigious if you actually sing his music?)
The opening number, a parody of “Oklaholma!,” reminds us that we're in “Oceano!” (Local references continue to be a staple of the Melodrama.) Then, it's revealed that the scene is actually a rehearsal for the show-within-the-show, a new melodrama that's opening later that night. The characters are various backstage story archetypes: ingenue Christine Day (Katie Worley Beck), her love interest Franklin (Tim Stewart), diva Charlotte (Jackie Hildebrand), stage manager Megan (Rachel Tietz) and creepy stagehand siblings Pukina (Abilene Olson) and Joseph Bucket (Toby Tropper).
Suddenly, a man in a bright pink shirt and an ascot bursts in, declaring himself to be the new owner of the Great American Melodrama. His name is Peter Piper (Mike Fiore), like the nursery rhyme. Why is that his name? Because it's silly! Speaking of which, there's a bit of meta humor, as Piper shames some of the Melodrama's past productions for their silliness, and plots to stage more serious subject matter. He's as bad as some of those prickly newspaper critics! You'd think this would be a major factor in the plot, but it really isn't. The rest of the show takes place during that same night, and Piper's plans rarely come up again.
As in the original story, the Phantom, aka the Melodrama Ghost (Beau Heckman), has haunted the theater for years, and leaves demands for the owners. Running gags are rampant in Act 1. For one thing, every time the Ghost is mentioned, an ominous chord plays, and all the actors pause to give the audience a dramatic look. And, being the title character, he's mentioned a lot.
Meanwhile, Christine's singing voice has mysteriously improved of late. Turns out she's secretly being trained by an unseen benefactor, whom she he believes to be the “Angel of Music” her father told her about. The script takes some of this backstory and comedically points up its absurdity by showing it in flashbacks, instead of just having the characters talk about it.
Unfortunately, toilet humor rears its ugly head. Olson's character is named Pukina Bucket, and there's an entire scene devoted to letting us know it's pronounced “puke in a bucket.” She's a horror-movie-housekeeper type, with a unibrow and a large mole. (By the way, the play-within-the-play seems to be comprised mostly of fart puns.) She has a thick German accent, while her brother Joseph has a Western U.S. accent. This is never explained, and presumably, that's the joke.
Stewart's hero has an exaggerated, stiff-jawed laugh, which gets actual laughs from the audience. Franklin later reveals his real name is Franklin Stein, and once again, an entire scene is set aside to make sure we get the pun. (At least it's not a puke joke this time.)
Tietz's character is relatively sane, and she mostly plays the straight role amid all the wackiness.
So, if this Phantom doesn't sing Lloyd Webber's music, how is he a parody of that particular adaptation? Well, he wears that distinctive half a mask. (What's under the mask will not be revealed here, but it's on the extreme end of the silliness spectrum.) Although this is a very goofy Phantom, Heckman manages to retain some of the character's distinctive traits. He uses a creepy, growling, theatrical voice. This makes for some funny moments when he'll suddenly drop the dramatic tone and speak in a normal voice, for comedic asides, or fits of exasperation.
The original show's famous effects are humorously re-created in a low-budget melodrama manner. The legendary falling chandelier becomes one of this show's funniest prop-comedy bits. This moment is a highlight for Hildebrand's hammy Charlotte.
As the Phantom threatens both Christine and the theater, Tropper rallies the Melodrama actors with a parody of “Ya Got Trouble,” from “The Music Man.” It misses the joke of the original -- that it's all a con and there is no trouble -- but it's a rousing rendition nonetheless.
The show is thematically appropriate for October, the lead-up to Halloween. It's lighthearted enough that it shouldn't scare most people, but it does feature moments of dim lighting and a lot of fog effects. At the attended performance, there were several children in the audience, who seemed to get as many laughs out of the show as their parents. Despite all the liberties this parody takes, it's still more faithful to “Phantom” than Lloyd Webber's own sequel, “Love Never Dies.” (This is the kind of theater geek reference that you don't get in the show.)
The third act is The Happy Vaudeville Revue, which explores why music makes people happy. The revue, written and directed by longtime Melodrama collaborator and PCPA resident actor Erik Stein, is the highlight of the evening this time around.
A backdrop is revealed, depicting giant smiley face and arching paths made out of piano keys.
Tietz takes the lead in an a capella rendition of Bobby McFerrin's “Don't Worry, Be Happy,” which features some lovely harmonies.
The humor of the revue is not based on parody lyrics, but framing the songs in comedic ways. Take Carly Rae Jepsen's upbeat pop tune “Call Me Maybe”: The three female cast members sing it straight, contrasted with an older man (Heckman) speaking the lyrics in a hilariously gruff manner.
A group of computer nerds explain that angry rap music makes them happy with a rendition of Weird Al Yankovic's “White and Nerdy.” The number features energetic, comedic choreography, simulating riding on Segways and other nerdy activity.
The revue ends with an extended skit that explains the concept of key changes in music using a cute and clever fairy tale. The malevolent Dee-Dee Minor gains the magical power to turn all happy songs sad by putting them in a minor key.
Melodrama's “Phantom” spoof is a little bit of spooky and a whole lot of silly. If that sounds appealing to you, get down to the Melodrama before the Phantom disappears into the shadows.