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REVIEW: "The Phantom of the Opera," - Academy for the Performing Arts

“…Close Your Eyes and Surrender!”

In celebration of their 25th Silver Anniversary, APA proudly presents the most popular musical of all time - Andrew Lloyd Webber’s majestic “The Phantom of the Opera,” now playing through March 24th in the Historic Auditorium and Bell Tower at Huntington Beach High School.

At the very heart of the success and longevity of this masterpiece is a luxurious, tuneful score by Webber, clever lyrics by Charles Hart and additional lyrics by Richard Stilgoe, along with a book by Stilgoe and Webber.

The musical is based on the 1909 novel “Le Fantome de l’Opera” by Gaston Leroux, partly inspired by historical events and apocryphal tales at the Paris Opera during the nineteenth century.

Entertaining, moving, incredible – this show, unfortunately, leaves no room for criticism. It is magnificent from beginning to end, and you would be hard pressed to see this quality of show on any other high school stage.

Although there are a few moments before the show starts that you might hear the old girl creak slightly, you are snapped to attention right from the very start, when those slightly menacing words of the auctioneer herald the commencement of proceedings.

Sitting front and center in overflowing crowds, directly underneath lot 666, the chandelier of the Paris Opera House slowly rises and illuminates during the chilling overture. This is just one of those theatrical moments you don't soon forget. The portentously swirling keyboards, violins and brass that powers “Phantom’s” title song have a black hole-like immensity, beguiling you with sheer juggernaut bombast. Andrew Lloyd Webber's gothic spectacular still works hard for its audience.

When it all started Jan. 26, 1988, Ronald Reagan was president of the United States, a gallon of gas cost about 90 cents and a ticket for “The Phantom of the Opera” was an unheard of $50. It was the hottest ticket in town. Now, still going strong in 2019, Director Tim Nelson and Choreographer Diane Makas expertly ensure everything is as tautly strung as it needs to be, and that balance between serious romance and gallows humor walks a delicate tight-rope in which this show, at the Huntington Beach Academy for the Performing Arts, walks fearlessly. They are assisted by a very able cast.

I was completely overwhelmed by the vibrance and beauty of the whole production. I wasn’t expecting the music to affect me in this way (I had seen Phantom a number of times before), but there were so many moments where I found myself breathless, completely entranced by what was happening on stage. Despite their familiarity, numbers such as “Music of the Night,” “Prima Donna,” “All I Ask of You,” “Masquerade,” “The Point of No Return” and the title song still retain their power and theatrical beauty after decades of public scrutiny. Thanks to the uniform strength of the voices and the soaring orchestrations, if you don't leave the theater humming the songs, you've got a hearing disability.

Cast with literally scores of players, the real test, however, of whether this production lives up to its reputation and legacy is the validity of the central three characters, Raoul, Christine and the Phantom.

There are many ways to make the role of the Phantom work and Patrick McCormick has found his own: a vigorous physical performance, agile like a cat, but laced with rage, grief born from rejection, and ruthless determination. This is a terrifying Phantom, winningly so.

Mr. McCormick’s appearances are eagerly anticipated, as his acting gives ''Phantom'' most of what emotional heat it has. His face obscured by a half-mask - no minor impediment - Mr. McCormick uses a booming, expressive voice and sensuous hands to convey his desire for Christine. His Act I declaration of love, ''The Music of the Night'' - in which the Phantom calls on his musical prowess to bewitch the heroine – becomes tantalizing enticement. Stripped of the mask an act later to wither into a crestfallen, sweaty, cadaverous misfit, he makes a pitiable sight while clutching his beloved's discarded wedding veil. Those who may have seen the previous production of APA’s “Side Show” this past fall, which featured Mr. McCormick’s stand-out supportive role there, will be stunned by the force of his Phantom.

Vocally, his fine, high-baritone is silky, seductive, and powerful. He has excellent control at both the top and bottom of his range, enabling real richness in the lowest notes and a thrilling, edgy sound at the highest points. His attack, energy and mellifluous tone made “Angel of Music” haunting and exhilarating, and both “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Point Of No Return,” matchless, culminating in a performance that was memorable and touching in every respect.

Allison Bossart was angelic, beautiful and alluring as the doe-eyed Christine Daaé, belting out incredible ascending sequences in the title number. She is a seasoned leading lady from her many roles at the academy, and seemed to fit the part perfectly in what a good Christine should be – exceptionally talented, yet meek and innocent.

She easily conveys the sense of a young, gifted artist confused and surprised by the attention lavished on her. Her most expressive orchestral work is glorious with much warmth, color and feeling. I have heard her multiple times, but was quite surprised at her range and operatic talents, especially in songs like “Think of Me,” “Angel of Music” and “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again.” When Christine debuted at the opera in place of the singer Carlotta, who had fallen ill, Christine's singing was described as "seraphic," which I would aptly describe the artist, Ms. Bossart, as well.

Raoul is a very difficult role to pull off successfully, but Sean McCrimmon took over the character completely. Playing Christine’s childhood sweetheart, Mr. McCrimmon gave an honest and vigorous performance as the romantic alternative to Christine’s mysterious teacher, and brought just the right angst and agitation to the young viscount, Raoul. His duet with Christine, “All I Ask of You,” while up on the roof of the Opera House, was one of the most emotional and beautiful songs in the entire show.

Rich, handsome, assured to the point of arrogance, but desperately in love with Christine, his part in the piece is a near-impossible balancing act for most: somewhere between dashing complacency and odd hero, although there were times that Mr. McCrimmon’s Raoul had so much charm that any edginess in the character quickly dissolved.

Supporting characters, such as the primadonna, Carlotta (Marlee Tierney), and the double act of theatre managers, Monsieur Firmin and Monsieur André (Matthew Rangel and Jordan Halloran), render diversion from the otherwise really intense central love triangle. (The role of Carotta is also played by Darla Jacobs on alternate days.)

One of the almost indestructible pleasures of “The Phantom of the Opera” is the comic duo of the Managers, Firmin and André. These are roles of undiluted joy and the comedic rhythm was irrepressible, unconstrained and bubbling over with Mr. Rangel and Mr. Halloran’s performances. (The roles of Monsieur Firmin and Andre are portrayed by Austin Skaggs and Jack Borenstein other days.)

Ms. Tierney impresses greatly as Carlotta - also providing the comedic moments which is welcome relief from the warnings of Buquet (Seth Merrill) and the cold, draconian Madame Giry (Sarah Bielicki). Ms. Tierney has a captivating voice of real power, with the result that her status as Supreme Diva is unquestioned – and very entertaining. Her characterization is perfect. She is a power ball of rapacious delight, puffed with self-importance – tantalizing, amusing, enthralling!

The Giry women are well represented. Ms. Bielicki is a marvelously mysterious and firm Madame, French in every way and coiled tightly, like a snake waiting to be charmed. When she is onstage, it is difficult to look at anyone else, so brightly does her intensity burn. Cassidy Love is the gorgeous Meg, poised and perfect in the ballet sequences, with a polished and flawless singing voice and an undeniable presence on stage.

In terms of style, tip-top voice, and gargantuan (and very funny) ego, Brennan Eckberg’s Piangi is a bliss bomb of eccentricity. In the wrong hands, Piangi can be insufferably tiresome, a problem for the momentum of the show, but not here. Mr. Eckberg is perfect as the pompous Italian tenor of limited skill and the complexity and detail he brings to the performance demonstrates his own skill.

“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” Unmistakably true while experiencing Act Two’s opening spellbinder, “Masquerade,” a spectacular assault on the senses. A rapturous feast for the eyes and ears, the divine set was a gorgeous array of elaborate Victorian ball costumes, complete with wigs, overdone makeup and masks, all presented in stunning choreography.

Considering the visual point of view, grand is the production’s use of projection interlaced with appropriate set pieces, with exemplary effects, considering the limitations of this stage. The physical production is a tour de force throughout - as extravagant of imagination as of talent. Scenic Designers Kaitlyn Cambell, Mylene Chu, Sierra Daniels, Lauren Liang, Teresa Ngo and Emma Puffpaff drape the stage with layers of tasseled theatrical curtains, backdrops and antiquated set pieces - and then constantly shuffles the view of the opera house's backstage from the perspective of its audience with a combination of backscreen projection and curtain drops. The grandeur of the design combined with Staciabella Roy’s eerie and velvety lighting and Marley Timmerman and Savanna Starks beautiful yet haunting sound helped ensure a paramount performance.

The Phantom's ability to produce fireballs from the floor heat things up as well and the spectacular finale to Act I sees the fate of the chandelier dramatically fall again. For added lifts, we visit the opera-house roof, with its cloud-swept view of a twinkling late-night Paris, then the subterreanean "lake" where the Phantom travels by gondola to a baroque secret lair that could rival Casanova’s hideaway. In its dim illumination, candelabras and fog, it's a masterpiece of campy iconography, bringing up visions of Liberace's living room.

Caring and passionate, frightening and desperate - every phase of this Phantom's struggle leaves your heart aching, thanks to Director Nelson’s magical eye and electrifying showmanship. Perhaps nothing can bring back the original days of Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman, but these young thespians do ride the wave well in this awesome spectacle. Applause to the numerous ensemble artists, cast, dancers, pit singers, musicians and tech crew who help make this production the phenomenal event it is.

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera,” is now playing through March 24th with an added show March 21st . Performances are at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm at the Historic Auditorium and Bell Tower, Huntington Beach. This show has the ultimate recommendation! Do not dare miss it!

Chris Daniels

Arts Reviewer

National Youth Arts


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