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.

Newark Memorial sounds its musical return with Grease

Creating meaningful, engaging, and fulfilling theatre at the high school level is not an easy task, even if you have a long-standing, well-funded and passionately supported program. So when your school’s theatre is in the throes of a “rebuilding phase”, sometimes it is a victory when you merely get enough student interest to mount a production. For the students and staff of Newark Memorial High School, their success goes far beyond just showing up.

Playing to a young, rowdy, and appreciative crowd (if not a bit ignorant about the rules against camera use), the cast of Grease took the stage last night in a sort of revival party for the school’s theatre program. After having several teachers at the helm of the program, including a long tenured faculty member who has since retired, the school’s theatre department finds itself in the capable hands of its drama club. Grease marks a return to musical theatre after a two-year hiatus, and also hails the dawning of a new era for theatre at the school.

Taking charge of the show with all of its 1950’s fun and kitsch is Jim Burris, a director with the challenge of creating a production where there were only six remaining students from the days where NMHS last did a musical. “It is a green bunch, but it has been really good. We have had our challenges, but that is to be expected”, the beaming director said as he looked over the steadily filling house just before curtain. He also mentioned how proud he was of the 44 member cast and nearly all-student orchestra, under the direction of Blair Barrett. His pride is very well placed as the cast and crew first took the stage (or rather the house) with an intense energy and an infectious spirit.

Right out of the blocks, the audience fell in love with the wide-eyed and quirky character of Jan (Justina Castillo) whose comedic timing and facial expressions played all the way to the back row of the theater where we sat. Also memorable from the get-go was Frenchy (Kaitlin Cummings) who always managed to get our attention with her bright smile, big energy, and full-investment in every moment. Cummings and Castillo are actually quite representative of a cast which gave their all, relentlessly charming the crowd with their enthusiasm. A well-used walkabout around the orchestra pit and into the audience upped the ante and put the energetic cast right in our laps, but made for some microphone issues with actors being in front of the main speakers.

In the role of Patty Simcox, Suleima Ochoa is relentless in her vigor, making her easy to love and hard to ignore whenever she is on-stage. Her moments with Danny Zuko (Patrick Francis Vital) were pure fun as she tried to lure him into her world of jocks, pep-rallies, and study-dates. For Vital’s Zuko, his focus was on the unassuming yet engaging presence of Sandy Dumbrowski (Maia Rodriguez). While this production rides high on its use of an unedited script (again, thank you to a staff for not glossing-over the fact that such subject matter does exist in high school life), Rodriguez and Vital take a more demure approach to Danny and Sandy, departing from the cartoonish antics of Travolta and Newton-John in the film. The result is a more relatable couple which was well-received by the opening night crowd.

With such a large cast and so many ensemble numbers, a show like Grease could easily become an exercise in herding cats, so to speak. But under the guidance of choreographer Jennifer Gorgulho, the cast stays unified in the large musical numbers and gives their all to make the more treasured moments of the show’s book come to life. In fact, it was the “new” moments where the stage show differs from the film which seemed to catch the crowd by surprise.

Songs like “Freddy My Love” (sung by the very natural and enjoyable Adrienne Hill as Marty) had the audience taking a fresh look at an old-standard of high school theatre. Also noteworthy was the wonderful vocal work of Brennen Meier as a featured soloist and as the Teen Angel (a role made famous by Frankie Avalon), the high-octane moves of Valeria Gonzalez as Cha Cha DeGregorio, and Amelia Loredo’s honest and grounded portrayal of Rizzo.

Overall, this production thrives in the high school setting for its brash honesty and unedited presentation. While this may make the show not safe for younger audiences, it speaks to a crowd who is essentially looking at a version of themselves, just removed by six decades. It is a promising glimpse of a young department which will only continue to grow. Thanks to the help of boosters, parents and local businesses (like Golden State Lumber who made a sizable donation), the students of the NMHS Drama Club have made a great return to the musical stage. It will be great to see where this group goes over the next few years.

Newark Memorial High School – Grease
November 11, 12, 18, 19 @ 8:00PM
November 13, 20 @ 2:30PM
Tickets - $15 adult/general. $10 students/seniors.

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