Reviews and Analyses - Page 4 of 4

  
Madame Halfmask’s Analysis: Piangi deux fois
(Piangi times two)

Christian Sebek
Broadway's current
Ubaldo Piangi

Frank Viveros
The North American Tour's current Ubaldo Piangi

Photo Credits: Audrey Liebross

  
Madame Halfmask recently had the good fortune to see both currently running productions of Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera within three weeks of each other, on opposite coasts – the  familiar Broadway version and the newly reimagined touring version.
 
The two versions are not clones, as were the Broadway show and previous North American touring productions, but neither is the comparison apples to oranges. Perhaps the best analogy, pardon the pun, is comparing a McIntosh apple to a Granny Smith. (McIntosh, as in Cameron Mackintosh? Get it?)
 
Some of the tour's secondary characters seem identical to their New York counterparts, such as Madame Giry and Monsieur Firmin.  Monsieur Andre is a tippler in the tour, but otherwise, he, too, bears a strong resemblance to his New York opposite number. At the other end of the spectrum, however, are the two Ubaldo Piangis, played by Christian Sebek on Broadway and Frank Viveros on tour.
 
The diminutive Christian Sebek steals the rehearsal scene when his Piangi, as Hannibal, struggles to climb on the back of the very large mechanical elephant. Apparently, the opera prop constructors expected the singer playing Hannibal's title character to be taller. Mr. Sebek told Madame Half Mask that Hannibal's costume weighs 52 pounds -- quite a load to drag while someone is climbing onto an elephant.
 
Frank Viveros's Piangi does not have to worry about the elephant, which arrives towards the end of the scene in the touring production, and is not built for riders.  Instead, Touring Piangi ends the aria by removing Hannibal's sword from its scabbard, holding it aloft, and flashing a triumphant smile. Unfortunately, Hannibal can't seem to unsheathe his sword without multiple tries; had he been in a real battle, he would have been in serious trouble.
 
Broadway Piangi is a sympathetic character. Broadway Ubaldo rarely gives into snark, and, when he does (for example, calling the new managers "amateurs" and calling the size of Carlotta's role in the Phantom's opera an "insult"), it is often to protect Carlotta. Although he refers to Don Juan Triumphant as "gibberish," we can understand the frustration of a nineteenth century tenor trying to learn dissonant music.
 
The audience sympathizes with Broadway Piangi's charming deficits. He can't sing the word "Rome" without adding the syllable "ah" on the end, but once he catches on, he pronounces the rhyming word "home" correctly. (Madame Half Mask has not yet figured out why Chalumeau, a fictitious French composer, uses an English libretto). Piangi struggles up the back of the elephant, but eventually succeeds. Piangi has problems mastering the difficult rhythms in Don Juan Triumphant, but he keeps trying and eventually learns to sing the passage. Perhaps the character is appealing because he works hard to get things right. Also, Piangi, according to Christian Sebek, is a proud man. Perhaps we, as members of the audience, sense that Ubaldo’s feelings are easily hurt, and we root for his success.
 
Touring Piangi is, in contrast, a rude buffoon – a stuck-up pain-in-the-neck who deliberately tries to annoy his colleagues and tries to jump into the limelight. He learns to pronounce "Rome" without the extra syllable but purposely mispronounces "home" as soon as he gets "Rome" down correctly. Don Juan Triumphant isn't just "gibberish" to this eye-rolling, face-making Piangi – he also refers to the Phantom's masterpiece as "s–t."
 
Touring Piangi either can't get his sword out of its scabbard, or he deliberately feigns clumsiness to play the class clown during rehearsal. Christian Sebek's Piangi sucks his stomach in in horror when the Phantom tells him to lose weight. Touring Piangi, who is constantly grabbing food, is in the middle of a snack that he snatched off the managers' desk when the Phantom's note arrives. His response is to hide the plate. Touring Piangi is neither dignified nor proud.
 
There is, however, one important way in which both Broadway Piangi and Touring Piangi are twins: both have beautiful, operatic tenor voices. Mr. Sebek spent many years singing opera before he moved to musical theatre. The Colombia-born Mr. Viveros, on the other hand, who is best known for his roles as Bloat The Blowfish in Disney’s Finding Nemo: The Musical and Iron Chef in Yellow Brick Road, told me that he never studied to be an opera singer or performed in an opera.
 
Sweet Piangi and sour Piangi have something else in common besides their beautiful voices: Both ultimately wind up the victims of the Phantom's garrote.
 
 
 
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