REVIEW: "Goosebumps, The Musical: Phantom of the Auditorium," Chance Theater
Updated: Jun 20
Please!...No SCREAMING Inside the Theatre!
Remember back in elementary school? You were so eager you were almost shivering, waiting for the teacher to hand you the latest "Goosebumps" horror adventure that you'd ordered from Scholastic Publishing.
Of course, you had other books to peruse…your volcanoes and earthquakes book (somewhat exciting), "Charlotte's Web," and that yawner science encyclopedia explaining how Saturn got its rings. But you just couldn't wait for the jimjams to begin: to run from a murderous clown, a howling werewolf, an abominable snowman, armies of chomping lawn gnomes, jack-o'-lantern-headed killers, or spine-tingling scarecrows come to life.
R.L. Stine's year-round Halloween treats – 62 novels in total throughout a 26-year history – were early enlightenment page-turners that filled imaginations and made reading suddenly something you looked forward to. But these were no ordinary kids’ books. Kids’ books made you fall asleep. These books kept you up all night.
Named the world’s bestselling book series of all time in the 2003 Guiness Book of World Records, Stine’s stories have even inspired a television series and two movies starring the famous Jack Black.
So when professional actor, director, and playwright John Maclay (“Anatole,” “Nancy Drew and the Biggest Case Ever”) and composer/lyricist Danny Abosch (“Fancy Nancy, The Musical,” “Off the Wall”) created the musical theatre version, entitled “Goosebumps, The Musical: Phantom of the Auditorium,” it was a welcome treat for kids of all ages.
The musical, originally co-commissioned by First Stage Children's Theater and Oregon Children's Theatre, received simultaneous World Premiere productions in the Fall of 2016 at the Todd Wehr Theater in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and the Newmark Theatre in Portland, Oregon, teaming up for the first theatrical family stage adaptation from the monstrously popular books.
Stepping right off that script, "Goosebumps the Musical: Phantom of the Auditorium" opened on October 6th at Chance Theater, Anaheim’s official resident theater company, just in time for the Halloween season, and exuberantly retaining the Stine signature heebie jeebies: campy horror, personal growth for the tween protagonists, and a supernatural twist in the final pages. Directed by Darryl B. Hovis (“Therese Raquin,” “A History of the American Film”), the show continues through October 27th at Chance Theater @ Bette Aitken theater arts Center on the Fyda-Mar Stage.
“Ghost stories seem to fascinate even the biggest skeptics,” says Director Hovis. “I’m sure we all have heard stories about apparitions haunting our school’s auditorium. According to scientists, we like a good scare when we know we are not actually in trouble. It makes us feel good…”
Based on the 24th book in the series, the action mostly takes place in a middle-school theater, focused around a ghostly phantom that is really one of the author's least gruesome villains, and dials down the fear factor substantially for younger theatergoers. Written without having the advantage of a visible monstrosity, the story rather relies on the reader’s emotional deep inner fear and anxiety. And although there are a number of tense moments throughout, it has nowhere near the disquietude and forbidding horror of Andrew Lloyd Webber's overblown version of Gaston Leroux's chiller. Conversely, here, there's no pretension, no tacky chandelier trick and no faux operatic caterwauling.
While a nostalgic feast for young parents who devoured two or three books over rainy weekends during their tween years, Mr. Maclay's adaptation chiefly serves kids, in effect giving them a backstage pass and a real state of stage fright. There's no need for clever winks to Stephen King or cameos from Stine's stable of other creatures, although the opening number, "Goosebumps," delivers a quick shout-out to Slappy the demonic ventriloquist's dummy, who's the unofficial mascot for the series. Mr. Abosch's creepy, slightly pop score sounds well suited to Stine's material, but eerily, this is one of those rare musicals with a tune that sticks in your head, playing over and over, days later.
One of the most significant performances in the show is from befuddled drama teacher Ms. Walker (played by Samantha Labrecque) and her convincingly anxious, spacey, funny and determined middle schoolers who are a credit to theater geeks everywhere.
The cast owns their characters' idiosyncrasies like natural personal traits, and Director Hovis masterfully keeps the silly suspense turned up high amid the solid musical numbers by Monica Pena’s well-executed choreography. The musical remains true to the bumpy road to adulthood, and kids will relate to the frustration and awkward moments.
BFF's Zeke (newcomer Rey Pulice), a hyperactive, junior “Finn Wolfhard-type from Stranger Things,” and Brooke (Emily Abeles, “Evita”), a consummate drama geek who lives for the velvet curtain and green lights, are a tight duo excited that they are both cast as lead roles in their fall school play. In fact, Zeke seems to be relishing his role as “the phantom” a little too much, dressing up in costume to unnerve other players, but all in good fun. His pranks finally backfire, however, when scary messages actually appear and a stage light comes crashing down. With all these strange new occurrences happening, there really does seem to be a malevolent force at work behind the scenes.
As Ms. Walker directs her drama students in their parts, they are given a haunted script, discover a chilling lair below the school’s basement, a maze-like series of dark, cramped corridors, and are ghosted by a phantom who continues to try to stop the show from going on. There’s disaster afoot with ruined backdrops, blood drippings, ghostly messages, and an ominous janitor hermit named Emile (Robin Walton). But above all...don't forget your lines, right?
Mean girl-kinda-sorta Tina (Jennifer Noce) is the spunky go-getter of the class who really, really wants to play the lead. Disappointed, and appearing even slightly vindictive when assigned as understudy to Brooke (“The Legend”), she plots for a while in her well rendered “Understudy Buddy,” but toward the end she revels in working behind the scenes with the lighting and props.
A new student, Brian (Christopher Diem, “James and the Giant Peach”), an adorably awkward crushing tween, joins the school and wants to be in the play, but unfortunately there are no roles available. Ms. Walker instead directs him to work with the crew backstage under the leadership of Tina. Many charming moments are devoted to Brian and Brooke’s crush on each other, and their duet, “Babbling Brooke,” presents an ode to the nervous jitters of fluttering puppy love. For the majority of the show, when Brooke and Zeke are together, Brian is there with them helping to solve the mystery of the phantom.
While rehearsing the play, someone appears to be sabotaging it, leaving the words “Stay away from my home sweet home” everywhere. Zeke, who has been busy like everyone else, is mysteriously suspected behind all the spookiness happening, but with all fingers pointing at Zeke, a startling surprise ending awaits.
The company’s numbers add suspense and intrigue to the ambiance, with enthusiastic and broadly-staged choreography. Brian Wiegel, playing a Student in the ensemble helps round out the excellent cast in supportive scenes and dances. Particularly memorable songs include “The Story of the Phantom,” performed by Ms. Abeles and ensemble, “My Story,” by The Phantom, and the title song, “Goosebumps,” by the company.
Musically Directed by Carol Roman; Scenic Design by Kristin Campbell; Lighting Design by Masako Tobaru; Sound Design by Jordan Jones; Costumes by Bradley Lock; Props by Megan Hill; Stage Management by Cynthia C. Espinoza. Executive Producer is Robert Berman; Associate Producer is Laurie Smits Staude, and Season Producers are Bette and Wylie Aitken.
R.L. Stine’s “Goosebumps, The Musical: Phantom of the Auditorium” continues through this weekend with seven more performances, ending with the 5pm performance on Sunday, October 27th. Please see www.chancetheater.com for ticket information and reservations. A show perfect for a student of any age.
The Show Report