The Phantom of the Soap Opera (1988)

     by Craig Sodaro and Randy Villars

This play comes in two flavors: the straight play, and the musical, which is exactly the same as the straight play except that it has some pretty terrible songs inserted here and there.

 

The general idea is that the cast of the made-up but suspiciously familiar-sounding soap opera, As the Heart Burns, is being plagued by a Phantom with an especial interest in the lead of the show, Regina. The cranky, aging actress playing Regina's mother, Daphne, is pretty clearly meant to be representative of Leroux's Carlotta (though in no more than caricature), while the part of Raoul is being played by Harlan, a hunky stud from a rival soap opera with whom Regina is carrying on a secret affair, much to the Phantom's displeasure. That's about where most of the similarities end.

 

Unfortunately, I was driven halfway up the wall by grammatical and spelling errors in this play. Yes, I am aware... it is a play, and therefore meant primarily to be seen in performance rather than read. But it was pretty clear that little editnig went into the script's production, and in some cases a misplaced homophone error actually might have made interpretation of the text difficult for actors. My enjoyment of the Romeo and Juliet conceit Sodaro was trying to build up for Regina and Harlan was also exceedingly dimmed by the continued misspelling of "Montague" (Romeo's surname in the Shakespearean play) as "Montegue". Agh. It's a small thing that I probably shouldn't have been as annoyed by as I was, I was. I was annoyed.

 

One interesting thing to note here was the carry-over of the concept of Christine and Raoul being from different social circles; while Harlan's and Regina's problem is that they work for competing soaps (which has none of the original relationship's overtones of class struggle), I am endlessly fascinated by this one concept's ability to always pop up again in the adaptations where you least expect it (it's even in the adult films!). While Regina and Harlan do have equal social standing, the fact that the reality of the performance world that they inhabit does not permit them to openly be together is a direct throwback to Raoul's inappropriate love for an opera girl.

 

The songs that I mentioned earlier... well, as I said, they're pretty bad. They're trying for humor, but the lyrics just aren't witty or clever enough to pull it off. The end effect was that I started to groan every time one came up, because they gave me a powerful urge to go do something else or possibly just take a nap. There's meant to be some parody of the songs from the Lloyd Webber musical inherent here (and god knows I love me some poking fun at Lloyd Webber), but it just didn't work for me. At all.

 

The Phantom, of course, is operating on the same premise as the Slesar short story that came out the same year: he's a disgruntled ex-actor who was written out of the show and is taking revenge on it by terrorizing the cast. His fixation on Regina is wildly inconsistent and appears to have no particular motive other than Sodaro trying to stick closer to Leroux's original story (though I suspect, based on the song shenanigans, that he is drawing from Lloyd Webber's version and not from the original); he seems to not care about her at all, then he seems to be planning to kill her like everyone else, then he kidnaps her and begs her to love him even though he apparently only met her for about three days once... it's confusing and seems pointless. She doesn't quite approach the level of Pointless Christine Figure achieved by the 1974 Levitt/Cassidy film's Randy, but she's up there in the top five.

 

There is a brief glimmer of the original story again when Harlan finally convinces Regina to elope with him; while I applauded the hint of her struggle and the choice between her career and her love, it was way too little, way too late.

 

I don't even have any notes about the Mifroid stand-in, Inspector Wright. He is, for comedic purposes (one assumes, at any rate), totally useless up until the point where he is apprehending the Phantom while dressed in a cowboy costume. Again, he's meant to be humorous, but I never so much as cracked a smile.

 

To save everybody a lot of time and misery, I'll just let you in on the secret: the Phantom turned out to be that guy who sells ham and cheese sandwiches (do you get it? IT'S FUNNY.) to the cast every day. Nobody saw it coming!

 

The entire point of this play is to mock soap operas, which is a perfectly fine point as stories go; but it isn't done well enough to keep me from falling asleep, and the use of the Phantom story is simply a means to that end and has no actual value in and of itself (in fact, much as I disliked the Slesar story of the same name, it at least had a few good dramatic moments; this does not). In their zest to mock the very mockable soaps industry, Sodaro and Villars have gone a step too far, bypassing parody and going right on into that mockable territory themselves. It was a worthy effort, but ultimately dissatisfying on pretty much every level.

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