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Phantom of the Country Palace 

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PHANTOM OF THE COUNTRY PALACE

Marriott's Lincolnshire Theatre

A labyrinthian opera house, an orphaned soprano with a voice of indescribable beauty, and a mysterious mentor whose macabre machinations protect her from those who would do her harm . . . is there anyone out there who does not recognize The Phantom of the Opera? No less than four adaptations of the 1911 Gaston Leroux novel have skulked over American stages in the last three years, so this melodrama is ripe for parody--and the Chicago team of Sean Grennan, Kathy Santen, Michael Duff, and Cheri Coons deliver as impish and affectionate a spoof as one could ask for.

The play opens in familiar territory--the La Scala opera house in Milan--where an American soprano named Christine receives news of her mother's death and grows homesick for her hometown, Nashville. Despite the pleading of Antonio, her devoted suitor, she returns there and becomes a backup singer at the famous Country Palace for Miss Sally, the Queen of Country Music, whose husband, Major Billy, owns the Palace. Chrissy, as she now calls herself, encounters her share of harassment and exploitation at the hands of the jealous Sally and the lecherous Billy, but she also finds her champions: Skipper, the young son of her nemeses, who falls head over adolescent heels for her; the sardonic stage manager, Clive, and the tough-talking security officer Crenshaw, neither of whom has any great love for Miss Sally or her pompous mate; and Aaron, the janitor, who always wears his cap pulled low over his face, who advises Chrissy to forget her training and sing from the heart, and who seems to be nearby every time some mishap sabotages yet another villainous plot. By the end of the play our heroine has found wealth, fame, and romance and, best of all, been reunited with her long-lost father (who, it turns out, has been watching out for her all along).

Grennan and Santen's sprightly script keeps the laughs coming, lampooning classical music's elitism and the hypocrisy of country and western's just-plain-folks image. (Miss Sally is happy to sing of being a "hog butcher's daughter"--until a stuffed pig suddenly joins her onstage.) They also poke fun at tabloid journalists ("The people have a right to know!" puffs an investigative reporter, only to be told, "The people should get a hobby"), Hollywood agents, marriages for the sake of careers, macho attitudes, and of course the most famous Phantom: when a chandelier is brought on as a prop, Major Billy dismisses it with a stern, "Those cheap theatrics have no place in my theater!" Duff and Coons's nearly nonstop score takes its potshots at grand opera--most notably in two telegrams dictated by Antonio to the tunes of well-known arias--but mostly remains firmly planted in the C and W idiom, ranging from the satirical "Does Your Daddy Know You Like to Kiss the Cowboys?" to a novel if underdeveloped amalgam of Ennio Morricone and Randy Travis called "Spaghetti Western" to the haunting "An Open Door" and the wistful "Someone Is Calling Me Home," ballads sweet enough to air on USA 99 with no one the wiser.

Jamie Dawn Gangi's Chrissy is a nice blend of 19th-century vulnerability and 20th-century independence, with a voice of the requisite indescribable beauty but also surprising subtlety--nowhere more evident than in "Two Roads Meet," in which she changes technique, from classical to pop, so gradually that we never notice until the transformation is complete. Gene Weygandt radiates a dark fury as the sinister Aaron, and Scott Mikita as the ingenuous Antonio is the perfect counterpart to him. Carlton Miller and Don Forston make a magnificent pair of scoundrels as Miss Sally and Major Billy, reveling in a relationship based on love, hate, and money: "I am the headlights, you are the deer," she sings to him in the delightfully grotesque "For Better, For Worse." The subsidiary roles are uniformly well developed, with Christopher Walz and Maria Santucci displaying especially fine comic timing as Clive and Crenshaw. But the discovery of the evening is 12-year-old Evans Colton, whose Skipper acts, dances, and sings with more attitude than Dwight Yoakam and plays fiddle like a pint-size Doug Kershaw.

Phantom of the Country Palace may not be Broadway material, but it has enough audience appeal and old-fashioned fun to play any other theater in the country. Certainly the production at Marriott's Lincolnshire--under the direction of Joe Leonardo and with a technical team that ably reproduces all the vulgar glamour of the country-music capital--is destined to be one of this season's successes.

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