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The First Annual 'PHANTOM' Fans Week Recap

The First Annual 'PHANTOM' Fans Week RecapPhantom Fan Week: I'll resist the temptation to write "Phantom Phans" but, in truth, even though I am very used to fans, I've never seen anything quite like this.

The deal was that fans of Phantom: The Las Vegas Spectacular (the very aptly named version of the show at The Venetian) could come to Las Vegas and get total immersion in their favorite entertainment. There were behind-the-scenes tours, meet-and-greets with key people in the production, a masquerade ball, dinner with the producers and a farewell brunch. It was three days that fans of anything or anyone - show, actor, singer, sports team - would love. I was fortunate to attend five of the events and, herewith, my report.

Meet the Phantom

There were actual gasps when Anthony Crivello walked onstage, reed-thin, dark hair and eyes - every inch the ideal guy to play the role. [And, I must note, there was a great deal of talk about the various actors who have played it. The fans, gathering during breaks, showed off memorabilia, autographs and photos, al the while talking about "Michael," "Colm," "Chris," "Howard," and so on. These people love the show and treat the actors like family. It's really nice!]

The format was question-and-answer. Some of the highlights:

Did you read the book or see the movie? "I haven't read the novel, nor have I seen the movie. Ultimately," he explained, "I don't want to be influenced by someone else's work."

Crivello is, he explained, a Method actor, a member of the Actor's Studio in both New York and LA. As such he created a backstory for Erik (the Phantom's name).

"Erik had a mother issue," he says. "His deformity caused his mother to reject him and he mistrusts women. But, he's attracted to Christine but he's never had a relationship because of the deformity. " The First Annual 'PHANTOM' Fans Week Recap

Do you take your work home? "Well, when I played Che, I didn't go home and plot to overthrow a small country," he said, "but there are elements of every character that are part of me."

How do you prepare your voice for each performance? "About 3 pm I begin to judge my voice. I warm up in the car. If I am not up to it one evening I call in. One day, I'd stopped at a 7-11 on the way in and ran some scales. I knew my voice wasn't right so I called in, apologized and said I couldn't go on. A few minutes later the phone rang. 'This isn't a joke, is it?' I was asked and I said it was not. 'Oh, it's April 1 and we thought it might be an April Fools joke.'"

What is your favorite part of the show? "I like the last 15 minutes because it's the meat of the piece. What proceeds it is the set-up."

What's your favorite role and what role would you like to play? This man who made his stage debut in a school about Pocahontas and John Smith in which he played the former, says, "My favorite role is Che Guevara in Evita. I'd like to play Willy Loman and Alvaro Mangiacavallo in The Rose Tattoo. Burt Lancaster was miscast in the role. It's very operatic, very Italian. I'd like to try it. I'd also like to play Teach in Mamet's American Buffalo.

"Michael Jackson would make a good Phantom. This man is the equivalent of what Michael Jackson is to this generation."

How do you (The Phantom) get out of the chair at the end? "I slide down the chute below the chair.

"Do you believe that? No, I'm not going to tell you. That's one of the things that bothers me. If I started to tell you everything, you're going to lose the magic of the whole thing."

How do you care for your voice in the desert? "I do scales but this is the most grueling climate and worst climate conditions I have ever had to deal with.  Why they didn't build Vegas closer to Mt. Charleston [where it's up to 20º cooler], I'll never know. This is also the windiest city I've ever been in. But your body starts to acclimate. You have to hydrate. I have humidifiers in every bedroom of the house, a central humidifier system and in the dressing room. I also try to avoid loud restaurants so I don't have to strain my voIce Too much in conversation. I don't want to baby myself and, luckily, I've been blessed with a set of iron vocal cords."

What advice would you give to a theater major? "Always be a self-starter and create your own work. It's a big mistake to rely on your agent or anyone else. Continue to study. Set your goals high, but take all the steps along the way to get there. Take business courses and always have a back-up career."

How does the makeup for Phantom feel? "Ron Wild, who is a genius, redesigned the makeup for this show and it's been adopted in every company. The mask is now a malleable foam latex. It's like wearing a glove. In fact, the glove I wear is more annoying than the mask because it's hotter. It takes one hour to put the makeup on and 20 minutes to remove it."

How do you keep the performance fresh? "It's Method. Each layer of the character has a particular feel. I'm trained to have a toolbox to use.  I've had eight Christines in three-and-a-half years and that helps. As Stanislavsky said, "There's no such thing as an accident, only the potential for divine inspiration."

Your hands are so expressive. How do you do that? "Well, I am Sicilian. Really, in this role your face is covered so, because of that, you focus on gesticulation. That's also an extension of Method training."

When asked about the key to maintaining a family life - Crivello and his wife have a three year-old son and a newborn daughter - along with a career is, he says, "balance." He also mentioned his love of sports "especially this time of year." But, in the end, he admits, "My work is my hobby and my passion."

The First Annual 'PHANTOM' Fans Week RecapThe Masquerade Ball

To say people went all out is an understatement. There were simple masks, masks covered with glitter and a few people like this man from Nebraska who called himself "Phantom Fett." It was, in all, a very fitting event for Fan Week and it proved beyond any doubt that people do care and can really get into it.

The Phantom Chandelier Experience

"Chandelier experience? That is soooooo Vegas!"

That's what someone said to me when I told her what I was doing last Friday afternoon. I don't know if she meant it as a compliment but all I can tell you is that, in every positive sense possible, the chandelier experience in the Phantom Theatre is an amazing, even awesome, only-in-Las -Vegas experience and I am thrilled to have seen it.

The presentation was made by Dana Bartholomew of Fisher Technical Services, Inc. (FTSI), creators and builders of this marvel that is the only chandelier of its type in any production of Phantom anywhere in the world.

It is in four parts, tiered like a wedding cake. It works with 80 cables (two or three are changed each week). There are 32 motors that total 640 horsepower. There are 16 trusses that hold it up and 18 pulleys by which it moves. It is decorated with 29, 400 acrylic crystals, weighs 2,100 pounds and moves at 35 miles per hour. It also bears a name - Maria - after the late set and costume designer Maria Bjornson (http://mariabjornson.com/welcome.html) who died at age 53 in 2002. Her wonderful website showcases her work and her legacy. The First Annual 'PHANTOM' Fans Week Recap

Speaking of websites, although I can toss around words like "pulley," "truss," "motor," "horsepower" and so on, I cannot explain any of this satisfactorily. I listened, took notes but, in truth, just watched in fascination. At the end, when the darkened the theater and cued the music used when the chandelier first rises at the end of the auction scene, I honestly had tears in my eyes. Absolutely one of the most beautiful moments ever in a theater.

So, I respectfully refer you to the FTSI website for all the information you'll need about the chandelier. It's at: http://www.fishertechnical.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=14:phantom&catid=18:theaters&Itemid=18

The Phantom Theatre

Here again is an only-in-Las -Vegas experience that is a wonder to behold and designer Paul Kelly came to talk to the fans about his design.

He was the assistant to Maria Bjornson in the original London production of the show then had oversight of all the New York and European productions. His aim always was "to protect the integrity of Maria's work."

Within that mandate, it was no secret that Phantom: The Las Vegas Spectacular  was to be different from every other production. The question, Kelly told the audience, was "How can you make this show better?"

Planning began in January 2005. The theater was to be created in part of the space that had until then served as the Guggenheim Las Vegas art museum. The Venetian people didn't want the audience to sit in boxes. The stage is larger than that in New York.

Kelly began with a visit to Maria Bjornson's archives in London. "If we could make it better, we'd look at it. I'd listen to any ideas as long as they're in Maria's aesthetic. And, technology has come such a long way since planning for the first show in the mid-80s, so that was really good."

The biggest challenge? "There's no intermission in this show. We had to figure out how to get to the masquerade without an intermission. "

All the problems were solved, he said, "with skills I learned in second grade because everything was first put into a quarter-inch black-and-white paper model in which a quarter-inch represented a foot. Then, when we decided on something it was built in a half-inch model."

He'd brought that with him, and intricate box that looked like your basic elementary school diorama, only intensely complicated and intricate. "At one point, we had 12 people drafting and drawing downstairs and 18 model makers upstairs.

"This show was done on the scale of grand opera. After all," he said, "if you're going to make the show bigger - and the stage here is three feet deeper than the stage in New York - you have to make it consistently bigger. So," he said gesturing at the gold fringe at the bottom of the red curtain, " the fringe is eight to 10 inches longer here than anywhere else."

Kelly detailed myriad adjustments made for this production. "Don Juan had to be more Spanish, more romantic." In El Muto the Fragonard painting was changed and Kelly's dog was inserted into the picture. The theater is decorated with sculptures that have jewels glittering when the light hits them.

As he talked, detailing all the details, the audience was left breathless and since, for me the lure of the show here is in the production details, it was all fascinating.

Among the facets of the production he still marvels at is  the scene change before the masquerade ball. "I needed new music to make the transition and, gosh!, I asked Andrew Lloyd Webber to write scene-change music for me! That was amazing."

Harold Prince

As wonderful as all that came before was - and it was indeed - the most wonderful event of the weekend was the keynote by Hal Prince. For this, most of the cast turned out and the few attendees who might have skipped a session were all there.

Introduced by producer Scott Zeiger, Prince began with the history of his involvement with Phantom. It was the most casual of beginnings to an epic undertaking. It seems he was having coffee in London and Andrew Lloyd Webber and Sarah Brightman were in the café. The asked him to join them and he did. Webber mentioned his thought of turning The Phantom of the Opera into a musical.

"Without any hesitation," Prince recalled, "I said, 'I'll do it' and he hadn't asked me to do it. He then asked me why I'd said yes so quickly and I said I wanted to do a romantic musical."

He noted that his last romantic musical had been She Loves Me (1963) and that shows considered "romantic" really aren't. "In The King and I,except for a dance, it's strictly hands-off," he said. "And in My Fair Lady you know he loves her when he says, 'Eliza, where the devil are my slippers?' and the music swells as the curtain falls.

"The original book of Phantom is romantic, a real Victorian romance. The silent film is grotesque. It is a romantic story and that's what I wanted."

Prince told of getting a tour of the Paris Opera which, in fact, has "a lake" in the basement to provide ballast as Paris is built on sand and the weight of the building couldn't be supported. Much of what he saw on his tour - like the Parisian skyline he discovered when he climbed on the dome - was incorporated into the sets and into this theater.

He was, when the tour ended, offered the chance to direct "any opera" he chose. "But, that's death to me," he noted. "People have to tell me what they want me to do and I can say yes or no."

To choose a set and costume designer, he was sent five files of photos of designers' work. "There was one in particular of a Strindberg play," Prince recalls. "It was all wood with slatted windows. Intelligent creativity was written all over it."

Thus, the collaboration with Maria Bjornson began. "It was an odd choice. But it was me depending on some odd sense of taste. We just coalesced."

He told the audience that his "work process has been pretty much the same for 55 years. I like to describe the metaphor; to pin a metaphor on a show. This is about a man who is unfortunate enough to be born grotesque and he's hidden his whole life. It's very similar to The Elephant Man. It's simply saying, 'Don't judge a book by its cover' or, in this case, by such superficial qualities as how a person looks.

"I was particularly interested in the character of Raoul," he adds. "He is wealthy, spoiled, willful, almost feckless at the beginning. He grows up. He grows to protect Christine. "

Casting the original show, Prince said, "was a difficult task. Mandy Patinkin would have been brilliant but he wasn't interested because he was making a movie. Andrew liked Michael Crawford. He's an incredible farceur and was a very famous boy soprano.

"Sarah was married to Andrew at the time and assumed she wouldn't have to audition because he'd written the show for her. She did audition. Of course, she's from another time and was perfect.

"Back then," he added, "it was hard to find juvenile leads in England and he was perfect so we cast him even though he was American."

Rehearsals proceeded with the cast adjusting to Prince's comparatively odd schedule: beginning at 10 a.m. and finished in the early afternoon. "Then I'd wander around London or watch Coronation Street," he said.

He reported to the audience that, like many people in the theater he was a lonely child.  "I enjoyed my own company." When he saw his first play at the age of eight it was a Mercury Theater production of Macbeth starring Orson Welles. "I don't know why my parents would take a child to see that."

He acquired a small stage at FAO Schwarz and toy soldiers at Woolworth's. Every Saturday, to the stentorian tones of Milton Cross, he'd direct along with Cross' narration of that Saturday's installment of one of the operas in the Metropolitan Opera's repertory.

Noting that he "rarely saw musicals" growing up, he adds, "I was very uppity about them. I grew up in the time when musicals were repositories for great songs by great songwriters and they had stupid plots.

"The musicals I have directed and will direct are much more serious and reflect much more serious themes."

 

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