Phantom of the Oprah

by Marc Keepper

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday March 8, 2010

The Phantom and Varla Jean Merman in Phantom of the Oprah
The Phantom and Varla Jean Merman in Phantom of the Oprah  

When Varla Jean Merman joins Andre "Afrodite'' Shoals in Ryan Landry and his Gold Dust Orphans' latest comedy romp, it's like when Fantasy Island or Carol Burnett's variety hour troupe welcomed Sandy Duncan and Robert Goulet. More is better. No joke is too broad. More than half the ham is just right. And while no broad is exactly right, that's more than half than fun.

Landry's Phantom of the Oprah borrows as liberally from Gaston Leroux's original as it does from Andrew Lloyd's Broadway hit (right down to a swinging shout out to that production's chandelier). Varla Jean, as ingénue soprano Christine Daaé, hits almost all the right notes. From her entrance dressed in the style of Britney's parochial school gone bad, Varla is front and center when she's on stage.

Varla is best matched vocally with Mark Meehan's squeaky suitor, Teddy Cruise, and John Pirroni's hard-bitten version of Nancy Grace (Nancy Grace by way of Disney's Ursala from The Little Mermaid).

Gold Dust regulars, Penny Champayne (Scott Martino) and Olive Another's sisters, Doris and Faye Rosenblatt, serve as B or C Plot comic relief. Much like Shakespeare's drunken porter in Macbeth, the jokes rely too much on non-sequiturs, but are silly fun nonetheless. Olive Another's delivery is pitch perfect and Scott Martino's costumes, especially his own characters tighter-than-tight jeans, are a sight to behold.

Ryan Landry's Madame Cunté and the director/actor Larry Cohen French Inspector Jambon both embrace their accents with zest and zeal. Dancer Michael Woods again pirouettes perfectly in a small but juicy role that truly enjoys what the Inspector saw as faggotry.

A sequined musical comedy rocket ship

Afrodite shines best in the opening scenes as Oprah bidding adieu to her talk show, but is not utilized as well mid-show. Phantom would greatly benefit from a good editor's eye and red pencil. If Landry's creative strength could find (and be matched by) his own local Hal Prince, there would be no stopping the Gold Dust Orphans. If Phantom had 3-4 less musical numbers and the show's Oprah-related book was tightened, a feel-good fun-fest could be deliriously successful.

One major and true highlight of the show is the completely wonderful take off of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody. This dance and musical extravaganza deserves a signifier more than mere take off or mash up. This is musical comedy done well. This musical sequence moves beyond drag theater, but it builds on very solid big girl drag bones (i.e, take a well known song, but subvert the original meaning with a skewed and knowing look).

Phantom takes off from its Bohemian source; in fact, it takes off like a sequined musical comedy rocket ship. The revised lyrics advance the plot and the jokes (both visual and lyrical) fly fast and aplenty. It's also worth noting that Phantom's dancing continues a recent Gold Dust Orphans' trend: the dancing just keeps getting more polished from show to show. Props definitely go to choreographer Samantha Brior-Jones.

If the rest of Phantom could match the Bohemian level, every audience would wax rhapsodic. As it is, Phantom is a fun, jumbled buffet and most of us poor suckers are just starving for fun.

So why turn down a doughnut when hoping for a perfect éclair? Enjoy the doughnut: even with a few holes, it's delish fun.

The Phantom of the Oprah continues through March 28, 2010 at Machine, 1256 Bolyston Street, Boston, MA. For ticket information visit the Gold Dust Orphans website.

Marc Keepper has been writing about movies, television, theater, sports, books & music-- interviewing DJ's, singers and producers-- since 1999.