Yeston & Kopit's "Phantom" in NJ

John Smitherman as Erik, in Yeston & Kopit's Phantom, appearing at the Broadway Theatre of Pitman, New Jersey.

Yeston & Kopit's Musical "Phantom" Begins Month-Long Run in Pitman, NJ

"Melody, melody, my kind of melody...." These and other operetta-style tunes are wafting through the Broadway Theatre of Pitman, in Pitman, NJ, during its current production of Maury Yeston's and Arthur Kopit's (Y&K's) Phantom, a sweet, romantic take on The Phantom of the Opera.
 
The Broadway Theatre's leads, Maggie Griffin-Smith, who plays Christine Daeé (Y&K's spelling), and John Smitherman (the theatre's producing artistic director), who plays the Phantom, have the music and acting chops to tackle the difficult material. Ms. Griffin-Smith has appeared in leading parts in numerous musicals, as well as having performed in films and commercials and having released her own solo album, Something’s Got a Hold on Me. Mr. Smitherman, a veteran performer, has played hefty roles, including Jean Valjean and the dual role of Jekyll and Hyde. He has also previously starred in three musical versions of The Phantom of the Opera: As Yeston's and Kopit's Erik, as the Phantom in a show by Jack Bell, and in Germany, as the title character in the ALW blockbuster.
 
The Broadway Theatre itself has an illustrious history as a stage and motion picture venue. Constructed in 1926, the once-proud building fell into disuse. Peter Slack, now president of the theatre's board, purchased it at a sheriff's sale in 2006. The Greater Pitman Chamber of Commerce, in cooperation with Heritage Foundation, Inc., helped reopen the theatre's doors by sponsoring a Bring Back Broadway fundraising gala. The opulent building is a perfect location to stage a story such as Phantom, which takes place around the turn of the twentieth century. According to the company's Web site, http://www.thebroadwaytheatre.org :
 
Two crystal chandeliers [hmmmmmm!] light the house and inner lobby of the Broadway. And, a great deal of the original cast plaster detail remains intact today with the original molds still on the premises. A small orchestra pit, four private dressing rooms, a common room, two bathrooms, and a pipe organ blower room [hmmmmm again, for those familiar with the Leroux story] in the basement can also be found.
 
Despite the potentially spooky elements in the subterranean areas of the Broadway Theatre, Yeston and Kopit have excised most of the horror elements from the original plot and portray the Phantom as almost an innocent. The story emphasizes his humanity instead of his deformity, making sure that we know the Phantom's name – Erik – and see his acts of kindness in providing a group of misfits with food. He has a friend in this version, Gerard Carriere, former manager of the Opera House, who attempts to keep Erik from killing, and we see the interactions between Erik and Carriere, who serves as his mentor, and eventually turns out to be much more.
 
The story begins when Christine seeks lessons and a singing job at the Opera House, after Philippe, the Count of Chandon, hears her and recommends her via a note to Monsieur Carriere. (Philippe is a combination of Raoul and his more wordly brother Philippe, as they appear in Leroux's novel). Unfortunately, Monsieur Cholet and his wife, Carlotta, a complete villain, albeit a humorous one, have bought the Opera House and fired Monsieur Carriere. Carlotta is a successful diva in her own mind, but not in anyone else's. She hires Christine as her wardrobe assistant to ensure that Christine receives no voice training and remains stuck in a dead-end job. However, Erik hears Christine sing and offers to teach her.
 
Unlike ALW's Phantom, Erik and Christine meet in person for their lessons. Erik devises a cover story, telling Christine that, because he is a famous man, if people find out that he gives lessons, they will all clamor to study with him. Erik tells Christine that he will always wear a mask so that she doesn't recognize who he really is but he warns her NEVER to mention the mask to anyone.
 
In this version of the story, Christine is not afraid of Erik. Erik has a conscience, despite his eventual willingness to kill a character who harms Christine. He crashes the chandelier to help Christine escape from the stage after her debut goes sour, taking her to his lair primarily to shield her. The climactic scenes and ending differ considerably from those in most versions of the story – especially Leroux's and ALW's. An added bonus is that the horrific scenes of child abuse present in Susan Kay's novel and implicit in the ALW musical (resulting from his mother's "fear and loathing") do not exist – this Erik's mother considered him beautiful, and sought to protect him from the world's ugliness by remaining with him underground until her death.
 
The Yeston and Kopit musical might have landed on Broadway – certainly, it is written with Broadway conventions, such as a major number right before intermission – if fundraising had not dried up. As I explain in Geoffrey Holder's obituary, when ALW, who was then considered a wunderkind, announced an intention to write his own Phantom musical and take it to Broadway, the lovely Yeston and Kopit creation was doomed. Madame Halfmask finds herself wishing that the two competing teams had gotten together and presented their two versions in repertory. What a glorious Broadway experience that would have been!
 
Phantom will play every Friday and Saturday night at 8 p.m. (except October 9th) and Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m., through October 11, 2015. There will be a Sunday evening performance on September 27th, at 7 p.m. Tickets are $28 each, plus taxes and handling. The theatre is located at 43 South Broadway, in Pitman, NJ 08071, about a half hour from Philadelphia and two hours from midtown Manhattan. Tickets can be purchased online at http://www.thebroadwaytheatre.org/?go=tixlist , by calling 856-384-8381 from Monday through Friday between 9AM and 4PM, or in person. If you have questions, email the box office at boxoffice@broadwaytheatreofpitman.com .

John Smitherman, without the Mask

Yeston & Kopit's Phantom is Currently Playing in Southern NJ