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Other 'Phantom' opens Hale's season in Gilbert

Phantom, NOT Phantom of the Opera, that opened last night at Gilbert's Hale Theatre is an operetta-like musical of scrumptious proportion that, like Andrew Lloyd Webber's well-known musical, is based on Gaston Leroux's Phantom of the Opera novel (1910). This Phantom, too, features music by a Tony Award winning composer. This Phantom's devilishly-costumed diva, Mary Jane McCloskey--who has a long history with the show--chatted with Examiner just after the thrill of the company's first performance last night.

Phantom cast at Hale Theatre in Gilbert, AZ - Fall 2014
Phantom cast at Hale Theatre in Gilbert, AZ - Fall 2014Nick Woodward-Shaw/Hale Theatre
Mary Jane McCloskey (Carlotta) and Annalise Webb (Christine) in Hale's 'Phantom' production
Mary Jane McCloskey (Carlotta) and Annalise Webb (Christine) in Hale's 'Phantom' productionNick Woodward-Shaw/Hale Theatre

"Every character has more depth....each of them comes undone," said McCloskey (Carlotta) of the Yeston & Kopit musical that debuted in 1991, five years after Sir Andrew's show hit London's West End. "If the Andrew Lloyd Webber show is the best icing, Phantom is the rich, layered cake."

Hale's production last night satisfied well the East Valley's hunger for sumptuous, multi-textured musical theatre. The risk in a less familiar show like Phantom is in missing important plot or character-enriching tidbits as up-tempo numbers spit past with too-often indiscernible lyrics. Bryan Stewart as the Phantom (who happily has a name--Erik-- and back-story to match in this version) and Annalise Webb as angelically-voiced Christine set the bar high. The ensemble, under Lincoln Wright's musical direction, easily passed as a genuine mini-opera company, meeting Stewart and Webb's sweet standard.

With lyrical storytelling well in hand, the cast and a couple standout supporting roles kept Hale's show rolling. Costumed at first in deep emerald and black, McCloskey's wonderfully hateful diva sung Carlotta's role with an expertly trained voice that smartly spoofs her character's squawky soprano reputation. Later, reminiscent of the best of Disney-like villains, McCloskey's Carlotta got to fill a chalice for Christine with a dastardly evil, smoking potion. She met an even more deliciously shocking and technically impressive demise later in the show.

"I feel privileged to be a performer with longevity. I like growing, going through this evolution," McCloskey smiled, recalling her initial role, years ago, in Phantom. She played the star ingénue, Christine, in the previous production.

"Hale provides such an intimate space," she offered in comparison. "Here, with this set, the audience is actually in the opera house with the cast. It's like we're creating the show together."

That intimacy was furthered by the well-crafted tension that melds Stewart's and Webb's characters into one another as the story unfolds. In a union not unlike the Greek mythological tale of Eros and Psyche, Phantom Erik's request that Christine never gaze upon his visage seems to create a binding chemistry rather than friction or distance. It works beautifully on the Hale set, in part because of the magnetism Yeston's harmony and lyrics provide, particularly in the number 'Home.' Webb especially, irresistibly did 'sing with all her heart' as the lyrics suggest. In bigger part, the scenes sizzled because of an undeniably magnetic, forbidden yearning that Stewart and Webb created for one another onstage.

Of special note in this other Phantom at Hale is the character Gerard Carriere, who is all but forgotten by Andrew Lloyd Webber. It's one of those wonderful cake roles to which McCloskey referred. Hector Coris masterfully allowed Gerard's story to rise. Finally, in the narrative-heavy second act, he broke our hearts in a tear-tugging resonant song, adding untold dimension and depth to the story.

The richest beauty of Hale's new production of Phantom is that cast and crowd alike got the pleasure of having a delectably appealing cake and eating it, too.