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History Loves Company/Phantom

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HISTORY LOVES COMPANY

Marriott's Lincolnshire Theatre

PHANTOM

Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace

Drummond: Listen to this: Genesis 4-16. "And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the East of Eden. And Cain knew his wife"! Where the hell did she come from?

Brady: Who?

Drummond: Mrs. Cain. Cain's wife. . . . Figure somebody pulled off another creation, over in the next county?

--from Inherit the Wind

According to Maury Yeston's new show, History Loves Company, Mrs. Cain is indeed over in the next county; Arielle is her name, and whether or not somebody pulled off another creation, she worships a different god than her husband does. She doesn't even know her husband's real name; when he wanders into her tribe one day, the handsome young outsider calls himself Avi. With his brooding reticence and that sexy, wary look that signals a Deep Dark Secret, he's sort of a prehistoric Richard Kimble; the audience has figured out who he really is long before he starts singing about his dead brother: "There he'd be / Mother's pride / Doing homework at the kitchen table / My brother Abel . . . "

Avi aside, History Loves Company is about the anonymous nobodies who never got their names in the Bible. "We're not the movers and the shakers of the world," says one. "We're the moved and the shaken." Arielle and her clan--led by an assertive fellow named Romer, who claims to be on good personal terms with the clan god, a tree branch called Akhna--wander around on the outskirts of biblical history, surviving floods, droughts, earthquakes, a stint of slavery in Egypt, and lots of other misfortunes before finally making their way to the edge of some promised land or other. There they pause, encouraging their grown-up children to cross the next river while they settle into their golden years to enjoy the inner peace they've finally achieved.

What Yeston, best known as a Broadway songwriter (Nine, Grand Hotel), is trying to create here is a tired businessman's show for the 90s--a "musical fable," as History Loves Company is called, reflecting the spiritual and material evolution of a now-graying Woodstock generation. It's no accident that the opening sequence in Eden (when "even sin was original") recalls a 60s collegiate love-in--with flesh-colored body stockings subbing for bare flesh. Or that, though generations of their children grow up and marry, the clan's original principal characters never age. Though by the finale they've acquired wisdom and self-understanding--even the rebellious Avi has conquered his demons--they're still the same attractive youngsters they were at the beginning; it's the perfect fantasy for middle-aged baby boomers.

Unfortunately Yeston's potentially interesting (if crassly commercial) concept is undernourished. Though the show's cute ads suggest an Old Testament Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Yeston tries hard to avoid that musical's bawdy burlesque sensibility, as well as the potential pomposity of a Fiddler on the Roof rehash. But he hasn't come up with anything better, either. The result is spottily amusing and generally bland, especially in the overlong, largely expository first act; if it weren't for director William Wesbrooks's sharp, slick production and the zesty likability of Yeston's songs, History Loves Company would send more people than just Cain into the land of Nod.

The second act is better--but only because it resorts to tried and true shtick that, if unoriginal, is at least funny. The sequence in which Arielle's clan is put to work painting Egyptian tombs, with its stream of puns and one-liners and its campy tap-dance number (nicely choreographed by Daniel Pelzig), could have come straight out of the notebook of Mel Brooks or Stan Freberg. (The stereotyping of the Egyptian overlords as fey faggots sticks out like a sore thumb, however, considering the lack of similar comedy at the expense of other minority groups; homophobia apparently remains the last acceptable form of bigotry.) It's followed by a sassy satire on theological sexism, "No Women in the Bible" (and when there is one, the song notes, she's usually carrying a jug), brassily belted by the estimable Catherine Lord, which provides some much-needed musical pizzazz.

Lord is one of several standouts in an ensemble that plays Yeston's libretto for much more than it's worth. William Brown deftly underplays the obstinate priest Romer, who could easily be enacted as a hammy Jerry Falwell caricature. Bernie Yvon provides a warm presence and a nice, wavery pop voice as Avi, whose competition with Romer for the clan's leadership provides the script with what precious little dramatic conflict it contains; Susan Somerville as Arielle teams nicely with Yvon on "Now and Then," a pretty ballad that has potential beyond this show. Tall, red-headed Carlton Miller is very funny as Taradee, the shopaholic wife who can hold a grudge against her insensitive husband for the full 40 days and nights of a flood. And Jonathan Weir and Terry James are comically sublime as the ridiculous Egyptians.

Thomas M. Ryan's turntable set is desert-simple except for the Egyptian-tomb scene--the better to show off Nancy Missimi's splendid costumes, which trace the characters' improving lot over the centuries. Yeston's songs, bright and enjoyable if generally forgettable, are given superb energy and gloss in David Siegel's arrangements and Jeff Lewis's musical direction. But--ironically for a show based on the Bible--what History Loves Company sorely lacks right now is a good book.

The same is true of Phantom, Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace's splashy but simpleminded musical based on Gaston Leroux' mystery classic The Phantom of the Opera. And like History Loves Company, Phantom is a world premiere. Composer and musical director Tom Sivak spins out ribbons and ribbons of rhapsodic romanticism, some of it directly borrowed from Tchaikovsky and all of it inspired by his lush, swooning style; good voices and a crack band keep the music gushing quite effectively. David H. Bell has directed and choreographed a well-paced, serviceable production that benefits greatly from Gayland Spaulding's colorful 19th-century costumes.

But the script that Bell has fashioned from Leroux' already much-adapted story is boring and misguided. Its only ruling aesthetic seems to have been "Don't do what Andrew Lloyd Webber did"; all the mysterious allure of the original story is lost along the way. Instead of finding inventive new uses for standard elements, Bell cops out and just drops them. His Phantom has no falling chandelier or walk-through mirror--which is like doing The Wizard of Oz with no ruby slippers--also no passion, mystery, suspense, or obsession. It does have some sex--a flash of flesh as the kidnapped diva Christine starts to bed down with her unmasked abductor, a plot twist that robs the story of its mythic and spiritual dimension.

Bell knows his audience, I guess--I went to a weekend show, not to the press-heavy opening, and the well-heeled west suburbanites genuinely seemed to enjoy it. The cruder the jokes, the more they laughed--a bit in which Christine's temperamental rival Carlotta pushes her big breasts in a man's face went over better and better the more it was repeated, for instance--and their appreciation of the talented singers was sincere.

Jamie Dawn Gangi as Christine, baritone Larry Adams as the Phantom, Stephen R. Buntrock as Raoul (Christine's suitor, virtually forgotten by the end of the show), and Kathy Taylor as the opera-house caretaker Madame Giry sing splendidly, and the ensemble sound glows in Sivak's gorgeous duets, trios, and choruses. But dramatically, Phantom did what I never thought anything or anyone could do: make me wish I was listening to Andrew Lloyd Webber.

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