Contrary to the way it sometimes has seemed during the '90s, "The Phantom of the Opera" is not the exclusive domain of Andrew Lloyd Webber. It can, in fact, be staged without big-budget special effects, lush romantic duets and even without the climactic crash of a one-ton chandelier.
Case in point is the new melodrama "The Phantom of the Opera--the Play," based on the original 1911 novel by Gaston Leroux, which in turn inspired the 1925 silent film classic starring Lon Chaney. It plays this weekend and next at Rancho Santiago College.
Director Pamela Richarde points out there are musical numbers in this student production, but they consist of opera selections from Gounod's "Faust" as opposed to dialogues sung by actors as they swirl around the stage.
"It's not that dancey-lancey stuff," Richarde said.
The Placentia resident predicts this two-act play may surprise audience members who have never heard of Gaston Leroux or seen a silent film. It may also come as a surprise, she said, that the dominant theme of this "Phantom" is not a "Beauty and the Beast"-like romantic relationship between a mysterious creature and a beautiful young woman.
The emphasis, she said, is on the much weightier theme of society's intolerance for people regarded as different--those who are reviled because of physical appearance, race, religion or whatever else departs from the societal norm.
"This is a really strong picture of that," said Richarde, adding that she is "glad the play follows the novel very closely."
Set in 1883, "Phantom" tells the story of a man who was horribly disfigured at birth and banished to the cellars of the Paris Opera House by his bitter father. A brilliant musician, the masked phantom falls in love with Christine, a chorus singer whose career is overshadowed by a temperamental diva.
The phantom adopts Christine as his musical protege, but she flees in terror after ripping off his mask and revealing the ugliness that makes him the object of disgust.
"If I am evil, it is because you have made me that way," Richarde said, quoting the phantom. "To me, that's the crux of the play. I will not be cheated out of my happiness because of my outside disfigurement."
With that in mind, "we create as much empathy for him as we can in this production," said Richarde, who holds a master's degree in acting and serves as a part-time theater instructor at Rancho Santiago and Fullerton colleges.
One of the challenges in directing this version of "Phantom," she said, is avoiding the trap of wallowing in damsel-in-distress melodrama.
"This is kind of difficult because it could be very melodramatic," Richarde said of the work by John Kenley and Robert Thomas Noll with music by David Gooding. "I don't want it to play like, 'Help, help me at the crossroads!' "
The way Richarde seeks to create drama is by emphasizing the mystery surrounding the murderous phantom as he lurks in the dark environs of the opera house.
"People have never seen him," she said. "They only hear him. It's the kind of tension that builds from the unknown."
Tension also builds, she said, through the familiar theme of unrequited love.
"It is romantic, too. He's in love with her. He's given her so much."
But the pivotal part of the play, she said, is Christine's rejection of the phantom "because she sees his face and can't get past it."
And that's where the play's message about intolerance comes sharply into focus.
"We are all from the same world," Richarde said. "We are all the same. If we treat each other with mutual respect and universal love, we wouldn't have all these problems in society."
* Rancho Santiago College presents "The Phantom of the Opera--the Play" in Phillips Hall Theatre, 1731 W. 17th St., Santa Ana. Performances tonight and Thursday through Oct. 14 at 8 p.m., Sunday and Oct. 15 at 2:30 p.m. Ends Oct. 15. $6 to $10. (714) 564-5661.