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'Phantom' is back with over-the-top theatrics, timeless story

The Tennessean (Nashville) logo The Tennessean (Nashville) 10/24/2018 Michael W. Aldrich
a man and a woman sitting on a stage: Quentin Oliver Lee as the Phantom and Eva Tavares as ChristineDaaé in "The Phantom of the Opera." © Matthew Murphy Quentin Oliver Lee as the Phantom and Eva Tavares as ChristineDaaé in "The Phantom of the Opera."

A haunting storyline, an unforgettable score, an elaborate and magical set.

There are reasons why "The Phantom of the Opera" is the longest-running show in Broadway history — and a fan favorite at Nashville’s Tennessee Performing Arts Center.

But thanks to producers’ embrace of technological advancements over the show’s 30-year run, audiences who know every word of “The Music of the Night” arrive ready to be freshly dazzled by the theatric experience.

The latest "Phantom" production by Cameron Mackintosh is no exception as the musical makes its return to TPAC’s Jackson Hall for a two-week engagement Oct. 24-Nov. 4.

“The new production embraces all of this new technology while still staying true to the heart of the original,” says Quentin Oliver Lee, who plays the iconic title role.

a man looking at the camera: Quentin Oliver Lee plays the iconic title role in "Phantom of the Opera," running at TPAC Oct. 24-Nov. 4. © Submitted Quentin Oliver Lee plays the iconic title role in "Phantom of the Opera," running at TPAC Oct. 24-Nov. 4.

Based on the classic novel “Le Fantôme de L’Opéra” by Gaston Leroux, "Phantom" tells the story of a mysterious, half-masked figure who lurks beneath the catacombs of the Paris Opera House and falls madly in love with Christine, an emerging young soprano. 

Director Laurence Connor’s new staging plays up the narrative’s grittier elements, including the love triangle between Christine, the Phantom and Raoul, a childhood friend and handsome admirer of the beautiful protagonist.

"The story, the music and the characters are what people have come to know and love, so audiences can hold on to those familiar elements but view them through a new lens,” says Seth Sklar-Heyn, the show’s executive producer and associate director. “We’re delivering a production 30 years after the original was produced. As a result, there's a pacing and style of performance in this new production that speaks to the time we’re in today, incorporating technology as well as the tastes of contemporary artists.” 

The new set design by Paul Brown uses a rotating stage to transport audiences throughout the opera house — from the manager’s office, to Christine’s dressing room, to the depths of the Phantom’s hidden lair. 

a close up of a fire: Quentin Oliver Lee as the Phantom and Eva Tavares as Christine Daaé in "Phantom of the Opera." © Matthew Murphy Quentin Oliver Lee as the Phantom and Eva Tavares as Christine Daaé in "Phantom of the Opera."

“In the new tour, we try to inhabit the Paris Opera House in a much more naturalistic way,” Sklar-Heyn said. “Every nook and cranny of the theater that we could find — on the stage, in the wings, in the corridors, in the offices, down to the bowels of the building in the Phantom’s lair — is used make the audience feel like they’re moving through the story with us.” 

Huge set pieces and over-the-top lighting are all part of the staging, but Sklar-Heyn says they’re not gimmicks.

“I would argue none of it is in excess,” he says. “Everything on that stage serves a purpose: to tell this story in a clear, vivid and compelling way.” 

An enormous chandelier still anchors the set, but the shimmering fixture has gotten a makeover courtesy of designer Howard Eaton, the mastermind behind the fiery Olympic rings that opened the London Olympics in 2012. The chandelier weighs a whopping 1,500 pounds and boasts more than 6,000 crystalline beads. A steel frame houses all the mechanical and pyrotechnic elements. 

“Originally, the chandelier started in a position above the stage and flew out over the audience causing ensuing chaos,” Sklar-Heyn said. “Now, when an audience walks in, it’s directly overhead, making whatever theater we’re performing in become the theater in which the story takes place. It automatically breaks the fourth wall, so every audience member will feel like they’re in the action.”

Beyond the pyrotechnics and costumes are music and acting that continue to make "Phantom" one of the jewels in the crown of musical theater.

Lee took over the role of the shadowy Phantom in the U.S. tour last December and has sought to balance the character’s sensitivity with menace and mystery. 

a group of people on a stage: Quentin Oliver Lee took over the title role in "Phantom of the Opera" in the U.S. tour last December. © Matthew Murphy Quentin Oliver Lee took over the title role in "Phantom of the Opera" in the U.S. tour last December.

“Because of how iconic the role is, I take it really seriously every night,” Lee said. “There’s an hour before each show that is spent applying the mask, makeup and prosthetics that I use to really get into the isolation and the frustration of the character. The direction by Laurence Connor was very specific on how human he wanted the Phantom to be, both in those very tender and very frustrating moments with Christine.” 

He’s comfortable in the role now but is still taken aback by the sheer size of the production, which uses 200 speakers and 1,200 costumes pieces, a few of which are from the original production.

“I am amazed by the ability of our stage crew to put this show to life,” Lee said. “There are screams of excitement and a little bit of fear literally every single show because of the new technology, the chandelier and the pyrotechnics in the show. Getting all those moving parts to work together in harmony is like a small miracle every time it happens.” 

a man wearing a suit and tie: Sewanee graduate Jordan Craig as Raoul in "The Phantom of the Opera." © Matthew Murphy Sewanee graduate Jordan Craig as Raoul in "The Phantom of the Opera."

There’s a Tennessee connection, too. Raoul is played by Jordan Craig, a graduate of Sewanee: The University of the South, located between Nashville and Chattanooga.

Braiding the theatrical experience together is a live orchestra playing beloved songs such as “All I Ask of You,” “Think of Me” and “Masquerade.”

“Whether it’s the orchestration or the melodies within the songs sung by performers, Andrew has an incredible way of creating character out of his music by creating themes and these musical threads that you’re not aware of it unless you're looking for it,” Sklar-Heyn said. “He brings in these echoes and motifs throughout the show and it just works to enhance each character's presence on stage.” 

The original Broadway production won six Tony awards, including best musical, in 1988. The show features new choreography by Scott Ambler, costume design by Tony Award-winner Maria Björnson and lighting design by Tony Award-winner Paule Constable.

If you go

What: The Phantom of the Opera 

When: Oct. 24-Nov. 4. Visit www.tpac.org for specific times.

Where: TPAC’s Jackson Hall, 505 Deaderick St. 

Tickets: Tickets are $50-$105. Purchase them in person at the TPAC box office, by phone at 615-782-4040 or online.

The chandelier weighs 1 ton and contains more than 6,000 beads. © Submitted The chandelier weighs 1 ton and contains more than 6,000 beads.

Fast facts about the new production of 'Phantom'

Load-in 

•  75 local stagehands are hired in every market to load the production into the theater 

•  35 local stagehands are used for each performance 

•  20 trucks are used to move the production from city to city (16 trucks in the building, 4 more trucks for the jump/advance) 

Costumes 

•  The show incorporates most of the Maria Björnson designs from the original production. 

•  There are a few pieces from the original production that are over 25 years old used in this production. 

•  More than 1,200 costume pieces are used during the show. 

•  Each ballet girl goes through a pair of ballet shoes every 2-3 weeks. 

•  Madame Giry has only 1 costume. 

Wigs 

•  Over 120 wigs travel with "Phantom." 

•  About 50 wigs are used in the show every night. 

•  All wigs are made from human hair except for 5. 

•  There are 50 mustaches in stock. 

Sound 

•  Phantom uses over 200 speakers.  

•  Approximately 50 are used just for the surround sound package. 

Electronics 

•  Over 85 moving lights in the design utilizes four different kinds of haze/smoke effects. 

Chandelier 

•  Over 6,000 beads are on the chandelier. 

•  Each strand has 632 beads. 

•  The chandelier weighs 1 ton. 

•  This new chandelier was designed by Howard Eaton (who designed the Olympic rings for the London ceremonies). 

Scenery 

•  The main scenic wall weighs 10 tons and rotates around the stage. 

•  The two opera boxes' scenic elements together take up a full truck to travel from city to city. 

Orchestra 

17 orchestra members plus conductor perform Andrew Lloyd Webber’s magnificent score every performance. 

More at Tennessee Performing Arts Center: TPAC’s 2018-19 season brings best of Broadway home to Music City

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