Apple Tree Theatre


Candlelight Dinner Playhouse

The title of a J.D. Salinger story kept ringing in my head as I watched Apple Tree Theatre’s Romance/Romance: “For Esme, With Love and Squalor.” Barry Harman and Keith Herrmann’s musical–actually a program of two thematically related one-acts–is a sordid valentine, offered with love and squalor to audiences too cynical to take romantic notions seriously but too sentimental to relinquish them. Full of graceful music, and played solidly and wittily by a four-person cast under Harman’s direction (he also staged the 1988 Broadway premiere), these one-acts combine chamber-opera delicacy with chamber-pot vulgarity to make for a show that’s simultaneously enticing and repellent.

Harman’s libretto is based on two short works from the late 19th century: Arthur Schnitzler’s story “The Little Comedy” and Jules Renard’s play Household Bread. The narratives share a subject: how danger and illusion can spark an erotic life dulled by habit and duty. In Schnitzler’s tale a pair of wealthy sexual cynics reinvigorate their lives by posing as impoverished innocents; Harman retains the story’s fin-de-siecle Vienna setting in order to preserve the relationship between class assumptions and erotic attitudes. But he retitles the Renard piece Summer Share and relocates it from 1899 France to contemporary America–specifically to a cottage in the Hamptons inhabited by four vacationing Manhattanites–so that he can contrast the modern characters’ styles with those of their 19th-century equivalents. The unfortunate, and surely unintended, lesson the contrast teaches is that self-absorption and pretension are unattractive in any century.

Alfred and Josefine, the principals of The Little Comedy, each fall in love with the other’s false identity: she’s a courtesan pretending to be a shop girl, he’s an aristocrat posing as a poet. What starts out as a game of deception turns too serious for comfort, so both decide to reveal themselves–at the same moment, of course–thinking that the revelation will end the affair. Instead it gives it new life–and new danger. In Summer Share, Alfred and Josefine are reincarnated as Sam and Monica, who with their respective spouses are taking a summer vacation together; their long-established platonic friendship is disrupted one restless night when their mutual attraction surfaces during a conversation about their sexual restlessness. For these two adultery is as much a game as deception is for Alfred and Josefine, but this game threatens two nice and steady marriages.

These simple, semisoapy stories are conveyed through a minimum of spoken dialogue and a stream of songs, some of which are delightful. Composer Keith Herrmann evokes the light-opera styles of Prokofiev, Offenbach, and Bernstein in The Little Comedy and the jazzy, slickly confessional sounds of Carly Simon and Joni Mitchell in Summer Share, yet his music never sounds derivative, and several songs linger pleasantly in the ear, chief among them “It’s Not Too Late.” Still, this pretty pop ballad about the hope of recapturing romance also embodies much of what’s wrong with the show: sung with charming but affected elegance in the first half by Alfred and Josefine, it’s reprised in the second in a garish, cheesy pseudo-soul style by Sam and Monica–as if singing hip could make their way of life less square.

Given their characters’ annoying personalities, John Herrera and Susan Moniz deserve a lot of credit for making the two pairs of lovers as likable as they do. Moniz is especially effective as Josefine, with a combination of propriety and mischievous sensuality that recalls the very young Dorothy Tutin (in the film version of The Importance of Being Earnest) and Glynis Johns. Herrera’s commitment makes Alfred’s and Sam’s crises of confidence surprisingly compelling (though Sam’s air-guitar routine is probably the most embarrassing thing I’ve seen in a theater all season).

Complementing the lead performers are Andrew J. Lupp and Pamela Harden, entertaining as a mini- chorus in the first half and appealing as the decent and nervous spouses in the second. Keyboardist Jeff Bell superbly conducts the offstage five-person band; Alan Donahue’s set, Peter Gottlieb’s lighting, and Caryn Weglarz’s costumes are evocative and pleasing.

Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit’s 1991 musical Phantom, now playing at Candlelight Dinner Playhouse, is a Phantom for people who don’t really like The Phantom of the Opera, the venerable mystery story that has inspired some half a dozen movies and at least three other stage musicals. Almost entirely lacking in suspense or sex, the Kopit-Yeston version turns Erik, the demented and deformed genius who haunts the catacombs of the Paris Opera, into a nice but nervous kid with a mother fixation (shades of Kopit’s Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad, which had considerably more bite). Instead of a mad, Svengalilike genius who trains the talented young soprano Christine to sing his music, here Erik is merely a quirky vocal coach who clumsily puts the girl through a few fa-la-las. “I have never taken on any students,” he warns her, and it shows. Trying to create a less threatening Phantom, Kopit and Yeston have invented a spook who’s about as scary as Casper the Friendly Ghost. And Yeston’s music is not only derivative but predictable–anyone with half an ear can sing the notes before they’re played; it’s also a stylistic hodge-podge whose influences range from Offenbach operetta to 1920s two-step to what I hope is a spoof of, not an homage to, Philip Glass.

Luckily, director William Pullinsi offers a production that rises far above the material. Lavish, inventively staged (by Pullinsi and choreographers Rudy Hogenmiller and James Harms), and gorgeously sung under Nick Venden’s musical direction, Candlelight’s Phantom delivers plenty of entertainment value. William B. Fosser’s hydraulic stage transports viewers from the streets of Paris to the depths of the Phantom’s foggy lair; Jack Kirkby’s richly colorful costumes and Geoffrey Bushor’s lighting evoke the ballerina paintings of Edgar Degas; and designer Tedd Greenwood provides a selection of multicolored, bejeweled masks for the Phantom that Imelda Marcos might very well approve. Among the well-balanced, fine-voiced ensemble, Marilynn Bogetich is a crowd-pleasing standout as the dominating diva whom Erik wants to replace with Christine. Opera singer Scott Cheffer acquits himself well as Erik, Karen Leigh is a lovely, musically supple Christine, and Dennis Kelly superbly handles the mawkish role of Gerard, Erik’s secret protector.

In short, Candlelight’s Phantom gives its audience their money’s worth. Still, I can’t help but invoke Gerard’s understated assessment of Erik’s masked, monstrous face: “It could have been better.”