Ambitious, compelling Phantom captivates at Presentation

Guest Review By: Rachel Michelberg

When I heard that Presentation High School - an all-girls, private Catholic school - would be mounting Phantom of the Opera, I thought I must have heard wrong.  Maybe they were doing the other version, the practically unknown rendering by composer Ken Hill.  After all, Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Phantom is still running strong on Broadway, claiming the title of “longest running show” with over 9,500 performances to date.  Much like Les Misérables, Lloyd Weber’s Phantom is truly an enigma, a musical theater icon, a tour-de-force must-see kind of show that everyone AND their  most non-theater-(and definitely non-opera) loving  friend or neighbor is proud to boast, “I’ve seen Phantom – four times, actually.” 

But I had heard correctly.  Presentation High School did indeed mount the iconic Lloyd Weber version, complete with falling chandelier, misty boat ride, dropping corpses and all. In the capable hands of longtime Performing Arts director Jim Houle, the sellout run (selling out before opening night, I’m told) was a great success – judging from the audience’s enthusiastic reaction.   The talented young performers negotiated the impossibly difficult harmonies and vocal ranges with great determination and commitment.  It was crystal-clear that this had been a Herculean effort by directors, designers, crew and cast alike – not to mention the army of parent volunteers who sewed, hammered, painted, and ushered this dream of a production into reality. 

Despite the great admiration I have for the effort and indeed the final result, I must question the wisdom of asking high schoolers – talented though they may be – to navigate the vocal demands of this pseudo-opera.  As in Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, Phantom is almost entirely sung - straddling the line between opera and musical theater but clearly leaning toward the operatic side of the line.  As a result, many of the well-meaning young singers encountered pitch and tension problems, belying their youth and vocal inexperience. 

Anderson and Louladakis
As the ingénue Christine Daae, a dream role for any soprano, senior Mary Anderson was a picture of innocence and beauty.  At times the purity of her tone, particularly in the atmospheric high notes, took my breath away.   Her acting was understated but passionate, a rare dichotomy in such a young performer.   In the title role, Leland High senior Michael Louladakis capably portrayed the Phantom as Christine’s nemesis, seducer and pseudo-father.  The Phantom  must be sexy without being lewd, powerful yet vulnerable, simultaneously attractive and repulsive -  an almost impossible task. As  Raoul, Christine’s ardent suitor, Bellarmine junior Aidan Cleary  demonstrated some tender moments, particularly in the lovely duet with Christine “All I Ask of You.”  Junior Gaby Capiton’s sweet soprano was sometimes too light for the demanding role of aggrieved, over-the-top opera singer Carlotta, though she demonstrated good vocal potential with a promising range and facility. 

Notable for their energy and fervor were Jacqueline Remmel and Patrick Curley as opera impresarios Madame Firmin (usually portrayed by a man as Monsieur Firmin) and Monsieur André.  I particularly appreciated senior Mandy Heiser’s portrayal of Madame Giry, the staff-toting, sharp-tongued Ballet mistress of the opera house, as well as her put-upon daughter (and loyal friend of Christine) Meg,  nicely danced (en pointe!) and acted by senior Morgan Locke. 

Choreographers almost always astound me with their ability to make non-dancers look good – but in this case Sara Cuddle’s facility with both the skilled Corps-de-Ballet and ensemble was remarkable – both groups excelling at their tasks.  Aaron Juni’s costumes were lustrous and authentic, whether denoting the comic ludicrousness of the French opera-comique singer or the elegant evening wear of the opera-goer.   Set designer Stephen Wathen always produces top-notch work, on a limited budget; this show is no exception. 

It is unfortunate that many modern-day theaters are designed without an orchestra pit, forcing the orchestra backstage, offstage or worse – no orchestra at all.  The backstage orchestra, conducted by Joseph Reichert, was well-rehearsed and supported the singers well, though often almost inaudible in the audience.   

Kudos to  the students, staff, and parents of Presentation High School – and especially, to director Jim Houle, for their courage, tenacity, and perseverance in presenting The Phantom of the Opera.  An ambitious endeavor…clearly, one that will stay in the hearts and minds of these talented young people as they venture into the future – theatrical or otherwise.
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