Arts & Entertainment

It’s a Grand Night for Singing at the New Music Mountain Theatre in Lambertville

By John Dwyer

With apologies to Oscar Hammerstein for copping the phrase, it’s a grand night for singing and for crowing about a very new and very wonderful Music Mountain Theatre.

Located just outside of downtown Lambertville, near the site of the former St. John Terrel’s Music Circus, it is the culmination of a dream that started just after the Bucks County Playhouse went dark in 2010 when Ralph Miller gave up ownership.

There was a core group of actors and techies that were homeless, many of whom went off on their separate ways, but there were some who created their own opportunity. The idea of theater being in the hands of performers, as opposed to producers, has a rich history. Great success can bring in producers to maximize creativity and provide more funding and revenue sources, but the premise that theater initiates with the artist has deep roots.

A theater is born.

It is seen at Music Mountain Theatre, where Ginny Brennan and Artistic Directors Louis Palena and Jordan Brennan have created a wonderful space for talented regional actors to hone their craft. The love for the arts is undeniable, and the Brennan and Palena families deserve kudos for working tirelessly to make a dream a reality.

“Phantom” is their premier show at this new venue. It is not to be confused with the more famous and showy Andrew Lloyd Weber “Phantom of the Opera.” This one was actually conceived prior to the Lloyd Weber, but was shelved and not fully developed until a few years after the opening of the Lloyd Weber behemoth. I prefer the Yeston and Kopits “Phantom” that you can see here, as it is more true to the original story and, quite frankly, is more emotionally involving.

Blast from the Past: Tent on Music Mountain.

When you consider that the playwright for the Lloyd Weber musical was Lloyd Weber and Richard Stilgoe, and the playwright for the Music Mountain version is the well-regarded Arthur Kopit, do you need to say anything more? Arthur Kopit’s writing is not just superior, it is superlative. This is the same man who wrote the play “Wings,” one of the finer plays I have been privileged to see, as well as the book to the musical “Nine.” You may have been awed by the Broadway version, but you will be moved by the Yeston-Kopits adaptation.

The show begins with the voice of Christine (Lauren Krigel), who is on the streets singing with an angelic soprano that captures both the ear and the heart of the handsome Count Phillipee de Chandon (Karl Weigand). He becomes her patron .

She goes to the Paris Opera where she believes she will be mentored by Carlotta Cholet (Shelly O’Hara-Tapp), the lead singer at the opera and wife to the newly appointed  opera director, Alain Chole (Louis Palena). Carlotta, unbeknownst to Christine, is no friend, and sees Christine as a threat. She is determined to sabotage her efforts at the opera. Her evil ways are also taken up by her spouse Alain, a dastardly manipulator and conniver.

Counterbalancing these ne’er-do-wells is Erik (a.k.a. “The Phantom,” played by David Tapp) who lives in the basement of the opera house. An unlikely hero, he is inspired to come out of the shadows to be her vocal coach after hearing her beautiful voice. The disfigured Erik has lived the majority of his life in the basement of the opera. Music has been his salvation, and he becomes enamored of Christine’s voice, and then of Christine herself. Erik becomes the protector Christine in the ensuing melodrama, and the plot stays close to Gaston Leroux’s 19th century novel.

The voices, across the board, are wonderful. That is especially true where it is most needed in the female ingenue, Christine. Lauren Krigel is impressive. Her Christine has a rich soprano and a wide-eyed innocence that is beguiling. It is totally understandable how anyone would be smitten by her.

Erik (The Phantom) as played by David Tapp has a leading man air. The unmasked side of him is handsome, and his speaking voice is as equally alluring as his singing, which makes it understandable why Christine finds him so attractive. But there is a side that Tapp could explore more — the hidden side is both physical and metaphorical. Having been closed off from the world for years, there are equal measures of vulnerability and volatility that the script presents and that Tapp can further examine.

The villains in the piece are Carlotta Cholet and her husband Alain, played with melodramatic panache by Shelly O’Hara-Trapp and Louis Palena. I have always admired Palena, and this time around he has created a wonderfully comic ponce who is a dastardly dandy of a fellow. With spot-on comic timing, both he and Carlotta are the people you love to hate. As the Count, Karl Weigand is kind, sweet, earnest and handsome, and certainly the one you immediately feel should be with our heroine. The effortlessness and naturalness of his acting suggests that Wiegand may be just playing himself, which is high praise indeed.

Also noteworthy are performances by Donald Hallcomm as Gerard Carriere, the ex-company manager of the Paris Opera and protector of Erik. Young Carriere (Jordan Brennan) and his true love Belladova have a well-choreographed ballet sequence.

There are quite a few set changes in this show. Set design, set decoration and lighting are executed by an obviously talented trinity, Jared Williams (technical director), Laura Baker (technical assistant) and Seth Epstein (technical assistant). Costumes are first rate for this large ensemble cast of 24. Kudos to Denise Carr (costume design) for her keen eye to detail. Jen Gursky keeps everyone in tune and on time as musical director.

The music is recorded, and an orchestra would be nice, but that is another expense for this fledgling company who have accomplished the impossible. They are producing fine theater in an impressive new home that they were able to build through sweat, fortitude, and benefactors who believed in their vision. Like a real-life version of “Crazy for You,” where everyone is trying to save a theater, they have done one better — they have made a theater that’s an actual, authentic space for artists in our area.

Music Mountain Theatre has an impressive season coming up. “Phantom” closes this weekend, so you might want to grab a last-minute ticket, and I’d recommend a season ticket — it looks that good.





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