The Mask, The Task: CPCC takes on 'Phantom'

CPCC Theatre's Phantom of the Opera Promo From left, Karley Kornegay, Ryan Deal and Anna Belle Lusk.
CPCC Theatre's Phantom of the Opera Promo From left, Karley Kornegay, Ryan Deal and Anna Belle Lusk.

When Central Piedmont Community College announced it would do the first Mecklenburg County production of “The Phantom of the Opera,” three responses made sense.

If you were an actor: “Finally! The musical I’ve wanted to do since it opened in the ’80s!”

If you were a cost-conscious theatergoer: “Finally! I can see it for one-fifth of the cost of a national tour!”

If you were anyone else: “?!?!?!”

Sure, CPCC Theatre had tackled mega-musicals from “Sweeney Todd” to “Les Miserables.” Yes, it wanted to top itself for the 10th anniversary of Halton Theater and needed a show that united the departments of music, theater and dance.

But ... what about the boat sailing magically through the mist? The plummeting chandelier? The complex orchestration? The need to double-cast the lead – Christine, not the Phantom (who’s onstage perhaps half an hour)? Did the decision to do this show about a mad genius reflect madness or genius?

Audiences will see the results Nov. 13, when “Phantom” begins an eight-performance run. It will rely on a mix of veterans, rookies and a veteran who is also a rookie (music director Alan Yamamoto – see the related story). Talent, technology and chutzpah will have to come together to pull off the musical that celebrates its 28th Broadway anniversary in January.

The show has been on director Tom Hollis’ mind for most of his three decades at CPCC. He met a cast member on a trip to New York early in the run, who told him every 4-foot section of the stage at the Majestic Theatre could be raised or lowered.

“I thought, ‘This would be fun to do – but extremely complicated,’ ” says Hollis, who heads the theater department. “I didn’t know if it would be released before I retired. Like ‘Wicked’ and ‘Mamma Mia!’ it seemed to tour forever. I wasn’t holding my breath.”

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s company made the rights available a few years ago, though only to high schools and colleges. Union County Performance Ensemble, a compendium of students from all Union County high schools, took the plunge in 2012.

CPCC made a test run with “Les Miserables,” a show almost as challenging, in fall 2013. “That was when the departments found out we could play together without hurting each other,” says Hollis, mostly kidding.

‘Certain level of magic’

He and designer Bob Croghan studied the reduced-scale national tour of “Phantom,” which didn’t require the massive sets of the original production. They realized they could do a lot with projections, although “a certain level of magic has to be accomplished. You have to have the chandelier, the (deforming) makeup. You have to make the Phantom disappear.”

Hollis has a poster from “The Stunt Man” behind his desk, with a quote from the Mephistophelian director at the heart of that film: “If God could do the tricks that we can do, he’d be a happy man.” It’s an inspiration for “Phantom.”

Like any impresario, he doesn’t want to explain those tricks; he did talk about one, the boat that almost sails itself through fog to the Phantom’s subterranean lair.

“I spent last summer looking for an electric wheelchair I could convert, but nobody had one, and they’re expensive to buy,” he said.

“An engineer named Roy Schumacher worked with us to power the boat; it runs on three wheels like a tricycle, with a motor from an electric drill. Christine steers it with the tiller, and the Phantom can put his foot on a switch to make it start or stop.”

Technology won’t matter if the leads don’t soar in the score. Two pieces of casting were easy: Ringing tenor Ryan Deal (who sang Jean Valjean in “Les Miz”) as the Phantom, and big-voiced Rebecca Cook-Carter – herself a former opera soprano and head of CPCC’s opera program – as Carlotta, the diva whose star has just begun to fade.

“It’s a huge undertaking for any theater company in the region, not just CPCC,” says Deal. “From what I have heard, the tech(nical requirements) will be extraordinary. The stakes are high, but there’s a ton of energy around the tenth anniversary of the theater and a celebration of Dale Halton’s contributions to the college. The feeling around the show is, ‘We know we can do this.’ 

The role may not be as long as Valjean but has an unrelieved intensity: “Whenever he’s onstage, the stakes are high. Tom and the team have staged the story so we really get to see the redemption of the Phantom at the end. He’s a tormented soul who doesn’t know how to connect to loving relationships, so it’s too little, too late – but the light bulb goes on for him.”

Youth under pressure

Hollis trusted the other parts to three singers who weren’t born when the Phantom first stalked Christine at the Majestic. Karley Kornegay (who’s 17) and Anna Belle Lusk (21) will alternate as Christine; 21-year-old Matt Carlson will play Raoul, the nobleman who knew her as a child and falls for her as an adult.

Hollis found Lusk through Cook-Carter, her voice teacher. He found Kornegay through a video submitted by her teacher, Jacqueline Culpepper; her dad interrupted a summer vacation to drive her back from Myrtle Beach for an audition, and she got the job that day.

Both see this as the defining moment in their young musical lives.

“I watched the movie in 2004 (at age 6),” says Kornegay, a senior at Northwest School of the Arts. “Christine got me into musical theater. This is my first lead in a musical: I’m always the girl who gets called back but doesn’t get the part, or who has a supporting role.” (She had two big advantages here: The high E Christine has to sing, and a build similar to Lusk’s, because CPCC could afford one set of costumes.)

Lusk, who has played Belle in “Beauty and the Beast,” says she hasn’t had “a role comparable to this, because I don’t know if there is a comparable role. It’s a big part, and you don’t realize how hard it is until you sing it. It goes into every single part of your range.”

Christine takes the main emotional journey in the show, from a naive chorus girl to the toast of Paris to a courageous, self-sacrificing woman.

“I connect the choices she makes with those in my own life,” says Lusk. “She fears the Phantom and loves him at the same time; no matter what happens at the end, she’s going to experience a loss. It’s a complex part.”

Adds Kornegay, “I admire her kindness. She sees the good in everyone. When I see someone who looks or acts differently, I try to treat them with respect. Her strength has rubbed off on me, too.”

The keys to the show

Carlson, fresh off a July lead in Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte’s “Rock of Ages,” left CPCC two semesters ago to tour with his band but has since come back. Like Lusk and Kornegay, he brims with an optimism that will be crucial to success.

And like them, he spent his youth listening to the “Phantom” cast album – he has seen the show nine times – though he “always thought, ‘Oh, Raoul is just the other guy.’ Until I saw the last tour (at the Belk), I never paid attention to him.

“He’s a rich and powerful guy who’s shallow in the first act. He becomes serious about Christine in the rooftop scene and finally becomes selfless in the Phantom’s lair. From an acting point of view, Drew (the callow rocker in ‘Rock of Ages’) was just me; I know that character. But Raoul’s older than I am, and I’m trying to understand what he goes through.”

Hollis has gambled on “this young generation of theater people who have grown up with it and really love it.” But perhaps he now knows secrets that make the show work.

“It’s good old-fashioned melodrama that sticks together better than most melodrama, and it has a lot more emotion than I thought it did when I started,” he says. “And the staging was less complicated than I thought, because it’s all dictated by the music.

“The show is like a big machine (in service to) the score. If you get off track, you will really be lost. If you stay on track, it will all come together.”

Toppman: 704-358-5232

‘The Phantom of the Opera’

When: Nov. 13-22 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Halton Theater, 1206 Elizabeth Ave.

Tickets: $18-20 ($10 students).

Details: 704-330-6534 or tix.cpcc.edu.