Potential unmasked

The Phantom (Raymond Johnson) carries Christine (Adrienne Collins) across the stage during rehearsal for ‘Phantom’ at Missouri Western State University.

When people bring up “The Phantom of the Opera,” a few versions immediately come to mind. Sure, there’s the 1925 silent film starring Lon Chaney as the masked and deformed specter of the Paris Opera House. But even more so, people probably recall the popular, long-running Broadway musical written by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

But the version that Missouri Western State University is producing to cap off its 2010-11 theatrical season happens to be none of the above.

Next week, the college’s theatre department will present a lesser-known but arguably better version of the classic story when “Phantom” takes the stage March 3 through March 6 at Potter Hall.

When the Missouri Western theatre department was deciding which plays to put on to reinvigorate its program, “Phantom” was one of the obvious choices.

While it’s still based on Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel, the play is written by Arthur Kopit with music and lyrics by Maury Yeston. It has long been overshadowed by the massive success of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s version, but “Phantom” made its stage debut in Houston in 1991 and has been produced numerous times since.

Tee Quillin, the play’s director and assistant professor of theatre and video at Missouri Western, says there are numerous aspects of “Phantom” that trump Lloyd Webber’s version. The play’s music is more operatic and less poppy. Meanwhile, the story sticks closer to Leroux’s original, delving into the backstory and parallels between the Phantom and his love interest Christine while emotionally unmasking the play’s eponymous lead.

“I think what makes this story stronger is you get to know the Phantom more,” Quillin says. “He’s not just the Phantom. He has a name. He’s not just a spooky guy wearing a mask. He has a history.”

Quillin says that “Phantom” is also more “dangerous” than Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera” because of the musical’s darker atmosphere and tangible tension.

“Everything seems more palpable, more urgent,” says Raymond B. Johnson, who plays the Phantom in the production. “When danger happens on the stage, it’s not a ghostly kind of ‘Scooby Doo’ threat. It’s a real kind of life and death, in-your-face (threat).”

“Phantom” has obvious differences from other adaptations, but what it shares with those versions is an equally grand and ambitious scale.

For the Missouri Western theatre department, there were a few obstacles. Missouri Western doesn’t have a technical theater program or a costume department, so they had to rent costumes from Music Theatre of Wichita and contract a lighting designer. The more than 30 cast members are comprised of students, young children and faculty members. And for the first time, the theatre and video department collaborated with Missouri Western’s musical director Rico McNeela and the Department of Music to build an orchestra consisting of both student and professional players.

As for the set, scenic designers and other volunteers helped to construct one of the largest productions to ever grace the Potter Hall stage.

“There are more set pieces moving around on stage than we almost have room for,” Quillin says. “When the audience sees them for the first time, they are awe-inspiring.”

“The set is as grand as the story is,” Johnson adds. “To look at it and walk through it, it doesn’t feel like a collegiate, amateur, pro-am production. It’s certainly a step up from that.”

Dallas Henry, professor of theatre and video at Missouri Western, says that he is excited the university has the capabilities, resources and talent to pull off a show like this. As for everyone else involved with “Phantom,” they hope the production will show that Missouri Western’s theatrical bar has been raised.

“I hope it’s a community wake-up call,” Quillin says. “I would hope that it’s a ‘Hey, they’re doing some amazing things over there again and we need to check it out ... that regardless of what they’re doing, we need to go see it because it’s probably going to be an amazing thing.’”

Performances of “Phantom” are at 7:30 p.m. March 3, 4 and 5 and 3 p.m. March 6 at Potter Hall, 4525 Downs Drive. Tickets are $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and Missouri Western employees and $5 for Western students. For more information, call 271-5923 or visit www.missouriwestern.edu/tickets/phantom.

Content © 2011. NPG Newspapers Inc, St. Joseph News-Press & News-Press 3 NOW. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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