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The Phantom Phenomenon 

by MICHAEL BOWEN & r & & r & The Phanatics & r & & r & I'm outside the stage door at Portland's Keller Auditorium. It's August, just after a weeknight performance of The Phantom of the Opera. Three dozen "Phanatics" talk animatedly, waiting for the stars to emerge.





They want a connection with the phenomenon that is Phantom. Six, eight, a dozen -- the number of times they've seen it, they say.





That's why it's a jolt the next night when I'm in the dressing room of Richard Todd Adams, who plays the title role in the touring production that's visiting Spokane in October, and he comes out with "166."





A guy told you he's seen the show 166 times?





"And at, whatever, $75 a ticket...." Adams' thought trails off. "That's what keeps this show in business."





The Story


In 1896, the chandelier really did come down. Fourteen years later, Gaston Leroux -- a novelist who was, in his fascination with the macabre, a sort of French version of Edgar Allan Poe -- published Le Fant & ocirc;me de l'Op & eacute;ra, based in part on the night when that chandelier (actually, its counterweights) came crashing down on some bejeweled Parisian ladies and their consorts in top hats. Leroux combined that incident with rumors of a misshapen fellow living beneath the Paris Opera House -- diversion of water during construction really had created an underground river underneath the building -- and he scored an international hit.





Our story begins in 1911 at the Paris Opera House, where the furnishings are being auctioned off. An elderly French nobleman is drawn to a mysterious music box with a cymbal-clanging monkey on top. It reminds him of the glories of the Opera Populaire -- which, with a boom and a flash and the uncovering of some dusty old accoutrements, suddenly appears. (The chandelier plays a part too.)





It's now 30 years earlier, back in the glory days. The company's diva is none too happy that heavy objects keep falling "accidentally," and there are murmurs about an opera ghost. Carlotta Giudicelli quits and takes her high notes home with her, along with her lover and fellow singer, Ubaldo Piangi.





The opera company's new owners need a new star singer, stat. They find one in chorus girl Christine Daae, who auditions -- tentatively at first, then enthrallingly. Christine confides in her friend Meg Giry that she's been speaking to a mysterious Angel of Music, whom she believes to be the spirit of her late father. (Wrong. The tutor is the guy in the half-mask.)





Raoul -- who's rich, handsome and aristocratic, and who knew Christine back in the day -- comes by her dressing room to visit. So does the Phantom (in a freakish appearance behind Christine's mirror), and what's all this about some other man being your Angel of Music, girl?





The Phantom lures Christine to his lair (via the boat ride on the candlelit river). She sings for him; he sings for her. He goes a bit too far, and she freaks out, later pulling off the Phantom's mask. (His right side isn't his good side.)





Soon the opera's owners are receiving written demands from the Phantom about how operas are to be performed henceforth. None of these demands are met, leading to consequences both comic and deadly.





Raoul and Christine pledge eternal love, and the Phantom is really, really not happy about having a rival.





As for the rest -- revelations about the Phantom's boyhood, the visit to the grave of Christine's father, and the final showdown in the Phantom's lair -- you'll just have to witness them yourself.





The Obsession


How to explain the Obsession of the Phanatics? Because Phantom offers the escapism and the passion of a romance novel -- men who feel unworthy, women who want to be possessed; unrequited love, the triumph of the dispossessed -- all set to lush melodies and staged with spectacular effects.





Call it the lure of the forbidden. For who among us wouldn't like to be pursued -- relentlessly, passionately? And to spice up the romance even more, add in the element of "the bad boy" -- because while Christine may be flattered by the attentions of Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny, she's absolutely fascinated by the masked man who dwells below. He's a man who will go to any lengths to woo her. A man with a past. Like her, a misfit.





When the Phantom offers to act as Christine's Angel of Music, all of us can enjoy the prospect of the duet they will sing -- backed by Baron Lloyd-Webber's synthesizers and strings -- on into eternity.





Or maybe, 22 years after Phantom's London debut, it only seems that "The Music of the Night" has been around forever. It will continue on because we all wear masks, because we all would like to sing our souls' desire. The Phantom, it turns out, is a lot like us.





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Experience the Phenomenon


The Phantom of the Opera will unmask its delights from Oct. 8-25 at the INB Center, 334 W. Spokane Falls Blvd., on Tuesdays-Thursdays at 7:30 pm (with Thursday matinees, on Oct. 9 and Oct. 23 only, at 1 pm); on Fridays at 8 pm; on Saturdays at 2 pm and 8 pm; and on Sundays at 1 pm and 6:30 pm. Tickets: $25-$68, Friday evenings, Saturday matinees and evenings, and Sunday matinees; $25-$62, Tuesday-Thursday evenings and Sunday evenings; $15-$45, Thursday matinees. Visit www.ticketswest.com or call 325-SEAT.





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IN THE WINGS


& lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & 'm backstage at a recent performance of Phantom in Portland -- in the wings, downstage right, just behind the stage manager's station. I've been told to stand right there and don't move -- this is a heavily trafficked spot.





The stage manager and one of the actors (he's just come offstage as the Fire Chief, charged with capturing the Phantom inside the opera house) are sharing a joke. I can't overhear them -- backstage is a surprisingly noisy place -- but I'm struck by how the joke is interwoven with the details of business.





"Ready 213, ready lighting cues 51 through 57. And... 213, go." There's backslapping and laughter over something Michael McCoy as the Fire Chief has just said -- something that had happened during the show's run in San Diego.





"Ready 214 and... go." Jason Carroll, who's calling the show tonight, doesn't miss the punch line, doesn't miss a cue. He jabs a couple of buttons, murmurs something into his headset, and returns to joking around.





Precision wrapped inside fun: That's the impression you get from witnessing the Grand Central Station bustling-around that goes on in semi-darkness during Act Two of Phantom.





The ballerinas -- mostly in their 20s, the tallest of them about 4-foot-8 -- giggle as they scurry past, a flock of Munchkins. For a moment, I feel like Richard Dreyfuss at the end of Close Encounters, surrounded by all the nice little aliens.





Then a stagehand, one of the locals, grunts at me -- I'm in the way. A guy in a cape smiles as he squeezes past, and I'm slow to realize that oh, that was the Phantom, on his way far up into the rafters. A propmaster casually lights a torch and sets it aflame just inches from some of the offstage blackout drapes. He doesn't even look up as one of the gendarmes in the show, fresh from the latest of his dozen costume changes, grabs it without breaking stride and sprints onstage, hot in pursuit of the masked man.





Production Stage Manager Amy Marisco takes me by the elbow and escorts me to another vantage point. The bleachers on which practically the entire cast had just been cavorting during "Masquerade" are now being collapsed and "flown up" (raised) high above stage. A team of workmen with electric drills are tightening bolts on a huge moveable truss known as the "Travelator" for the graveyard episode three scenes later.





Marisco explains that they've flown in a special metal curtain that blocks out light and noise. Good thing, because during a couple of relatively quiet onstage scenes, it's like a factory back here -- bustling and loud, with pulleys and winches and even some shouting. There's a tomb and a cross to attach to the Travelator, and some concern about just which route Richard Todd Adams as the Phantom will take to get into position for the graveyard episode. (He made it in time.)





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & N & lt;/span & one of this -- set, lights, sound system, any of it -- would be here without a lot of preparation. That's the province of advance stage manager David Hansen, who oversees Phantom's city-to-city transitions. The show travels in 20 trucks -- each of them 48 feet long -- with eight of the "advance trailers" designated for carrying the "jump set."





Hansen explains: "The chandelier, the proscenium, the stage floor, all the drops and swags -- all of those are duplicated. The sets you saw in Portland -- they skip Seattle and travel directly to Spokane. The portcullis, the midwall for the managers' scene -- we pretty much lay the foundation for the show in advance. We lay all the cable for the sound and electrics. In the advance week, we hang the speakers -- for when the Phantom's voice bounces all around the theater -- and then we hang all the front-of-house lights and get them focused."





The show's main components skip from city to city: The Seattle sets, for example, are truckin' all the way to Florida: Just five days after the show closes here in Spokane, it'll reopen in Tampa, Florida.





A traveling show like Phantom typically does its "load-out" on Sunday: Everything out the door and into the trucks in 12 hours. With the advance work done and the jump set already in place -- the advance trailers started arriving in Spokane nine days before the opening -- it's a simple matter of merging a dozen local stagehands with the all the carpenters and electricians who advanced the show into one 16-hour day of "load-in." By midnight on Tuesday, the show's in place, ready for Wednesday morning sound checks before that night's opening.





The complicated backstage choreography continues, of course, even during performances. The set pieces and backdrops that need to be flown in, for example, hang on 40 overhead pipes. "And that's not counting our electrics," says Hansen. "It's an incredibly tight hang. Many times the drops do 'foul' or catch on each other."





Fortunately, on this late-August night in Portland, there aren't any evident screw-ups. Five minutes after the final curtain, however, in a makeshift office four floors up, Marisco banters with her three assistant stage managers as she sends off an e-mail to the production supervisor back in New York: One of the lighting cues was slightly off, you see, and they hadn't gone all the way down to blackout.





The Phantom tour after 16 years: still trying to be precise, still definitely having fun.





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TEN THINGS TO WATCH FOR





Monkeying Around


The music box appears in the prologue and at a couple of dramatic moments later on. "When he was a child," says Richard Todd Adams, who plays the Phantom, "and he was feeling so rejected, the monkey was his confidant. He talked to it."





Pyromania!


The strobe-flash fireworks are so bright, they'll leave red after-images dancing in front of your eyes; well out into the audience, you can feel the heat from the flash-pots.





The Elephant


We witness snippets of three operas produced at the Paris Opera House. The first is Hannibal (an ornate epic in the style of Verdi's Aida, pictured above), and one of the conqueror's famous pachyderms is wheeled on. Watch for the comic business with who climbs onto the elephant -- and who's behind it.





Who's the Fairest of Them All?


The Phantom's first appearance in Christine's dressing room often draws gasps: How do they do that?





Quite a First Date


A dashing, mysterious fellow, a romantic boat ride, rising candles and sliding candelabra, and two guys in the wings scampering around with the rowboat's remote control. It's every girl's dream.





"Il Muto"


Carlotta or Christine: Which will lose her voice? This inset scene (in the manner of Mozart's comic operas) also features seven shepherd girls and a guy in lederhosen deliberately mis-performing a dance -- and the impossibly low trill that John Whitney as Ubaldo Piangi lets loose and delivers.





The Rooftop Duet (and Solo)


Raoul and Christine pledge their love in the evening's most lyrical moment ("Anywhere you go, let me go too") -- only for their words to be repeated by an angry Phantom as the first act crashes to a close.





"Masquerade"


Choreography and costumes on parade: When the full company engages in role-playing, there are more individual stories going on than any viewer can track.





"Don Juan Triumphant"


Desperate Phantom, doomed Piangi, newly assertive Christine: the action of this third inset opera advances the plot of Phantom.





The Chandelier


If you're seated in the first few rows, keep your head down. You won't be expecting it.





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MEET THE LEADS





Trista Moldovan -- as Christine


Christine Daae, the ing & eacute;nue-lead in Phantom, encounters people who change her life. It's been the same with Trista Moldovan, who plays Christine in the current national tour. She started with the company in July as a chorus member and understudy for the role of Christine; two weeks later, she flew to New York to audition for the lead and was hired on the spot. "It's been a total baptism by fire," Moldovan says. "The rehearsals were pretty grueling: 11 to 5 every day, and then performing in the ensemble at night."





For most of the show, Christine isn't exactly empowered: She faints, she's hypnotized, she moves around at times as if in a trance. But you have to remember, says Moldovan, that "she is surrounded by three men." In the tomb scene, "she is saying goodbye to her father, and then she's pulled and tugged between the Phantom and Raoul. She is completely entranced by the Phantom," Moldovan adds. "He has so much allure and power over her."





As for the plausibility of that relationship, Moldovan cites the "Victorian fascination" with everything occult, taboo, erotic. "But we're desensitized to that now," she says. "Everything out of the ordinary, we take for granted." That's why Moldovan admires the original Christine, Sarah Brightman, who brought "absolute wonderment and total innocence" to the role.





Richard Todd Adams -- as The Phantom


Richard Todd Adams is racing down a backstage hallway at Portland's Keller Auditorium, his Dracula cape flowing behind him and just ahead of the two scurrying dressers he has in tow. We're somewhere in the middle of Act Two, and Adams takes a breather by doffing his jaunty black hat and tilting back his half-mask. He may be sweating under all the gruesome latex on his face, but he still grins and gives a little wave as he walks by. He's scheduled for an appearance at the tomb of Christine's father, and there's a gangway he needs to clamber up.





The role of the Phantom requires great vocal range and versatile acting, yes, but a backstage visit reveals how athletic the role is -- up and down ramps and stairs, ascending into the rafters, scampering into hiding places. And how it requires patience: "I spend about 10 minutes hiding in that cross" during the graveyard scene, Adams says. "People don't realize that he's only onstage for about 26 minutes."





Adams has studied past performances on videotape at the New York Public Library's theater archive. "Michael Crawford was so phenomenal in the role. Before I saw him, I thought, 'I can't see this guy as sexual.' But when you see him in performance, you see the kind of erotic attraction he had."





Adams' own interpretation is "a bit darker" than Crawford's, he says. And perhaps a bit more acrobatic.





Greg Mills -- as Raoul


Raoul is a standard-issue romantic hero, and Greg Mills agrees that "sometimes it's hard to keep him distinctive." But Raoul's character does develop somewhat. "At first, he's arrogant -- he has money, he orders [Christine] around," Mills says. But by the finale, when Raoul has to defend Christine and stand up against the Phantom, "he finds his heroic ability. He finds that he can protect her without being full of himself."





Mills has distinctive stage presence. At the top of Act Two, the precision of his movements is eye-catching. Sure enough, back when he and Richard Todd Adams were in the cast of Webber's The Woman in White on Broadway, Mills was the dance captain.





After doing his own makeup, Mills gets pushed onstage in a wheelchair for the Prologue's auction, which takes place 30 years after the musical's main action. Then he gets "five or six minutes" to change out of his "old man costume" and transform himself into young Raoul. But the quick change is worth it, as Mills gets to share in the singing of two gorgeous songs: "Think of Me" at the beginning of Act One and "All I Ask of You" at the end of it.





After being in the show so long, don't Webber's melodies get stuck in his head like earworms? "Oh, yeah," Mills immediately responds, lowering his voice an octave. "I'll be riding my bike around town, and even then, wearing headphones, I still can't get these songs out of my head."





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ALL SEWN UP


& lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & f you had made a $1.6 million investment, you'd want to protect it too.





This particular touring version of Phantom may have visited Spokane in January 2000, but it originated in Seattle in December 1992. And 16 years ago, says Wardrobe Supervisor Frankie Fehr, producers sank all that money into costumes intended for the long haul: ornate, layered garments made by hand that would be maintained by specialists. (It was a wise investment, too: When Phantom inaugurated its 95-minute Las Vegas show in June 2006, a separate set of costumes for that company alone cost $8 million.)





The costumes of Phantom's touring Music Box company have been maintained so well that even now audiences are gawking at costumes that, for the most part, go back 16 years. As an example, Fehr displays "a jester costume from 'Masquerade,'" the show's New Year's Eve extravaganza that opens Act Two. It still had all its bells and baubles, but a patch of fabric on the sleeve had worn out simply from years of use. But Fehr and her staff fixed it by ordering a close match to the original fabric from a shop in New York, then repainting and replacing just the worn patch. The rest of the costume lives on.





Fehr has 10 wardrobe assistants who each work four hours daily. That's an entire workweek put into costume upkeep every day: two to do the laundry, two to do the sewing, two to repair the beading, two to press and steam-clean all the Phantom's outfits, and so on.





A tour of the backstage dressing areas reveals the pride Fehr takes in the costumes she has tended to for 15 years. "This is Carlotta's 'Hannibal' costume," she says, displaying the painted velvet and beading of the elaborate gown that the fictional opera company's diva wears during the dress rehearsal in Phantom's first scene. "It has kind of an Etruscan look, loosely based on Aida," she says.





Fehr also shows off a sequined and beaded "'fairy princess dress' -- the blue beads make it sparklier," she says.





But it's not enough for the costumes to be eye-catching -- they have to be sturdy too. Many of the gowns in the show "seem to float, because they're made of silk," Fehr says. They need to be reinforced along the hem because they drag along the floor. It's constant trade-off between delicacy and sturdiness -- not least because the actors sometimes have to tear their costumes on and off quickly.





At one point, for example, Monsieur Andr & eacute; (one of the opera company's new managers, played by D.C. Anderson) has to perform a quick change in just 10 seconds. In the transition from 'Masquerade' to 'Managers 2,' he has to get out of his skeleton outfit -- it always gets a big laugh, you'll see why -- and into a tux with the help of two dressers. "They unzip him and it's peeled off," Fehr says. "And his suit has snaps and fasteners, so he just steps into it. But he has to pull on his own jacket and shoes." And as Meg Giry, Jessi Ehrlich has just 14 seconds to make the transition "from her Degas tutu to the servant in 'Il Muto,'" the second of Phantom's three inset opera sequences.





"These clothes undergo a lot of stress. But we also put in a tremendous effort in maintaining them," Fehr says. Clearly, she enjoys her work: "We get to work on costumes that appear in a ballet, theater sequences, three different styles of opera, and 'Masquerade.' It's great fun."





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MUSIC OF THE PIT


& lt;span class= "dropcap " & "P & lt;/span & laces, please." The voice on the intercom doesn't sound harried, and neither is musical director and conductor Jonathan Gorst. In just three minutes, he'll signal the opening downbeat of Phantom's overture for an August performance in Portland. Right now, though, he's still two flights up from the Keller Auditorium stage, adjusting his bow tie and straightening his dress tails. All the way down the stairwell, he talks casually. No nervousness: Gorst has conducted Phantom a thousand times before. And that's just counting the Las Vegas show.





He chats with a few of his 13 musicians (all of whom travel with the show) and takes his post. He smiles as he conducts, glancing at the score only occasionally, his head bobbing out of the orchestra pit like some kind of musical prairie dog.





During the show, Gorst is on monitors everywhere -- in the orchestra pit, in the wings, in the dressing rooms, up in the light booth, everywhere. It's like watching Big Brother leading a music class. The entire crew keys off him -- stage managers, actors, stagehands, everyone. Flicks of his wrist cue an entrance here, a computerized light display over there.





Like the musicians sawing away near me, I can't see any of it. I'm stuck down in the back of the orchestra pit near a bass player who keeps eyeing me nervously, clearly wondering if I'm taking notes on his technique. One of the violinists resumes reading a novel during every available break in her part, right up to the moment when she has to pick up her bow and play "The Music of the Night" for the 759th time. None of us can see what's going on. (It's a little disconcerting when mad scampers and explosions take place directly over your head.)





But even after years on tour and two years with the Vegas version of Phantom, Gorst has retained his enthusiasm for Andrew Lloyd Webber's music. At the first sound of the monkey music box (playing the same melody that's reprised later in "Masquerade"), Gorst looks up and smiles sincerely, as if delighted for the first time by the little tune.





Two costumed men trundle through the pit with gathered parachutes of silk -- they've just bundled up some of the draperies that fall away after the auction in the Prologue to reveal the facade of the Paris Opera. But Gorst isn't disconcerted. He knows to close his eyes for a pyrotechnic display early in the show -- otherwise, he'd be momentarily blinded.





During the "Hannibal" episode, Gorst sings along with the onstage actors, mouthing the words with the chorus. He puts on headphones during the descent-into-the-lair sequence -- as he tells me later, to ensure that he and his musicians stay in synch with some brief pre-recorded sound effects. Later, he puts them back on for a moment, just long enough to make sure that the Phantom's voice has merged correctly with the live musicians' performance.





At intermission, we shake hands and say goodbye. Gorst claims he's really looking forward to the tour's Spokane stop. I figure he's just being polite until he mentions that he has family in the Colville area.





If there's such a thing as cheering on a musical theater conductor during a performance, I guess that's what his brothers and sisters will do. But Jonathan Gorst will take it in stride, just as he has the 2,000 other performances that he has guided.

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