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VOL. 127 | NO. 29 | Monday, February 13, 2012

U of M Stages ‘Phantom’ for Centennial

JONATHAN DEVIN | Special to The Memphis News

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The University of Memphis will celebrate its centennial year in part by producing one of the monoliths of modern Broadway musicals, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “The Phantom of the Opera.”

The University of Memphis will celebrate its centennial year in part by staging the Broadway musical “Phantom of the Opera” Feb. 16 to 25.

The show, which has only been seen on university stages for a short time, will have only a brief run in Memphis as well.

“This is the most challenging, expensive and demanding piece of theater that we have tried to do,” said Bob Hetherington, chair of the Department of Theater and Dance at the university. He is also the director of the production.

Hetherington said that when university centennial planners discussed the celebration, they asked him for something “really big.” What’s bigger than “Phantom,” he thought.

The 1986 musical takes place in the Paris Opera House, which has been haunted by a musically-gifted, masked specter who secretly gives voice lessons to Christine, a chorus girl in whom he sees remarkable promise.

Along the way the phantom falls in love with her, but his devotion turns to violent obsession when her growing relationship with a childhood friend, Raoul, brings back demons of the phantom’s earlier abandonment.

The show made household names of actors Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman as the Phantom and Christine, respectively, and the show has had one of the longest runs in Broadway and East End history. The musical is based on the book “Le Fantôme de l'Opéra” by Gaston Leroux.

Hetherington secured the rights to the show, which are still not available to professional or community theaters, more than a year ago.

The university is one of the first in the region to stage the show since the rights were first made available to colleges and high schools.

Still, not many produce the show because of the sheer size of its massive set and costume needs.

“As a director, the challenge is delivering the iconic elements that the audience expects to see like the falling chandelier,” Hetherington said. “We have to have a gondola coming down the stage floor. We have to have the staircase for the masquerade number at the top of the second act. At the same time, we’re interested in making this our production. We’re not doing a karaoke version of ‘The Phantom of the Opera.’”

He noted that The Orpheum Theater had to expand its backstage area in order to accommodate the show. The University of Memphis stage is even smaller and seats only 300.

The entire cast of 30 came back to school 10 days early this semester for daylong rehearsals. The scene shop has been building sets since last fall.

Professional costumers were contracted to help sew together all of the costumes needed. A wig designer was brought in from the Actors Theatre of Louisville. An engineering student designed and built a radio-controlled gondola moved by a joystick.

The list goes on and on, Hetherington said.

For the cast auditions, Hetherington was clear on one point.

“Because this is part of the centennial, it was important to me that this be a showcase for the talent at the University of Memphis,” he said. “I wasn’t interested in bringing in professional actors or ringers for this show.”

Copeland Woodruff, head of the university’s opera department and a member of Actors Equity, will play the phantom, but all other parts were cast with students, including music major Amanda Boyd and theater major Christina Hernandez who will split the role of Christine simply because Hetherington couldn’t choose between them. Raoul will be played by music major Lucas Hefner.

While the iconic moments in the show will be played to audience expectation, certain others will have a newer approach, namely the scene in which the phantom’s own opera “Don Juan Triumphant” is presented. Hetherington said the scene, which is supposed to be ahead of its time, will be even more modern than traditional productions.

The one problem facing this production isn’t falling light fixtures or back-stage murders, but rather the time allotted to it – a mere eight performances, all of which are sold out.

Hetherington explained that with so many students involved, including a 30-piece orchestra, scheduling couldn’t be stretched further. He said the public may have a chance to see it by showing up an hour before curtain and getting on the waiting list.

“Typically those people will get in,” Hetherington said. “We do not start a performance with empty seats.”

“The Phantom of the Opera” runs Feb. 16 to 25.

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