By JAMES PEACEMAKER JR.
Jan 1, 2014, 11:46
PETERSBURG -- The Phantom of the Opera asks “Who’s Jesus?” before learning about the Bible, how to pray, and the reason for Christmas.
At first it seems like an odd combination, but for some of those in theater circles, they relish any chance to incorporate characters from the classic musical.
With that in mind, Tracey Frame decided to create The Phantom Players, which performed its first production, “A Phantom of the Opera Christmas,” last weekend at the former location of the Sycamore Rouge in Petersburg.
“It mainly got started because at some of the other theaters that I was already with, I met certain actors that were already obsessed ... with the story,” Frame said.
Frame said it is really hard to get the rights to the Francis Lloyd Webber musical. She said they don’t really want groups doing the musical but may license it to schools.
That means many actors don’t have a chance to perform in one of their favorite productions.
But this theater company at least lets them portray the characters and be a part of that world.
The music -- a combination of Phantom of the Opera and classic Christmas songs -- used in the performance already existed, but Frame put them into a script that was based on the book and her own imagination.
“She’s really developed a good hand at writing her own shows. This one she really outdid herself. This is one of her best,” said Jesse Taylor, a Thomas Dale High School senior who played the Phantom.
Frame said she typically adapts the script to the actors in the show. For this show, many of the men’s roles were cut. Actors also played multiple characters and performed crew duties like moving the set and operating lights, music and fog.
Frame said the popular musical leaves out a lot of what is in the book, and many productions take liberties with the story.
“Every single Phantom movie out there is completely different,” she said.
Taylor, who played the Phantom, said he has been interested in the musical for some time because his mother is a big fan.
“She got me really interested in the music. ... We sat down and watched the movie with Gerard Butler -- and then I looked up better versions. I know the songs from the original one by heart,” he said.
But Taylor said it was a lot of work to learn the music.
“The only song I knew myself was ‘You raise me up.’ All the other songs I researched, studied, learned them myself. I knew opera ahead of time, so the Italian wasn’t tough, but naturally that was a whole different language. ... Learning the lines has never been my strong suit, but this show is a very fun one to be in. I pushed myself to do it,” he said.
Taylor has acted in every production of the Chesterfield Children’s Theatre in the past five years and plans on attending John Tyler Community College before going to Virginia Commonwealth University. He plans to major in musical theater and child development so he can teach.
While Taylor and others in the production were big fans of the musical beforehand, there were a couple of younger kids in the show that had no idea what the story was about.
“As they’ve joined the cast, they’ve gotten into more of the history of it,” Frame said.
She admitted it took time for herself to become a fan as well.
“I actually boycotted the original. I didn’t understand what the big deal was. ... I’ve actually seen it twice on Broadway and I couldn’t tell you a thing about it. The first time, I fell asleep. It wasn’t until I sat down and read the actual book that I appreciated the musical. Then I wanted to dive into the story,” Frame said.
Frame said the group may plan a trip to go to Paris and see the actual opera house and the lake that served as the backdrop for the book. She said many of the characters were real-life people.
“We’re kind of obsessed with it. ... I get more curious the more I find out about it,” she said.
A lot of the actors in the Phantom show just finished up other shows. Frame said it was a challenge trying to learn songs from “Les Miserables” and this show at the same time.
Some were also not used to singing operatic-style music.
And what Phantom of the Opera production would be complete without a little bit of a curse of its own.
An actress set to play Meg had to have surgery after a screw in her leg came loose, so Frame had to fill in.
Also, the actress who played Christine knocked the bird off the front of the boat and hurt her leg.
“I was used to the space. The actors had to get used to this space,” Frame said.
The Phantom Players performed in the space at 306 N. Sycamore St. formerly used by Sycamore Rouge. Frame was the president of Sycamore Rouge and is the co-founder and artistic director of the Chesterfield Children’s Theatre since 1997.
She was glad to be able to bring live performances back to the location.
The small space, not much bigger than a large living room, seats about 40 people.
It provides for an intimate experience, with no microphones, and actors are only a few feet from the audience.
“I could hear a pin drop in that place. The audience was so quiet you could hear what everybody was thinking. ... It does kinda throw you off a little bit to have the audience that close,” Frame said.
But others thrive on being close to the audience.
“Some people love it. The boy who plays the Phantom, he loves audience interaction, so he’ll just like go up to someone and like stare at them in the face and creep them out,” Frame said.
At one point, a shout from the Phantom made the crowd jump from the loudness in the confined space.
Frame plans on continuing to use this space because there are not a lot of spaces available. They can’t use schools because they are not an established nonprofit.
Frame said the landlords have been very good to work with because they want to encourage arts in downtown Petersburg. They are looking for other artists, whether musicians, comedians or other performers, to use the space, Frame said. Una Harrison also teaches classes in the space.
Frame said the Phantom Players won’t be performing here every weekend though. She plans on doing only a couple productions a year, depending on what other shows are going on.
They also plan on doing film work with Atlantic East Motion Picture Company. They will soon begin working on a pilot for a TV series called “Coney Island,” which is based on the characters and world of Phantom of the Opera.
“We’re going to be doing Phantom-related historical projects around that time period ... that Victorian gothic stuff,” Frame said.
Cast members for “A Phantom of the Opera Christmas” included Jesse Taylor, Tiffany Browder, Joey Vasquez, Sierra Hawkins, Garrett Leighton, Stacey Frame, Tracey Frame, Naomi Mottley, Ashleigh Humphries and Erinne Phillips. Crew included Tracye Lynn Frame, director; Donna Davidson, choreography; Earnie Taylor, master carpenter; Stacey Ann Frame, costumer; and Joey Vasquez, special effects.
The Phantom Players will also perform “A Phantom of the Opera Christmas” as a fundraiser at Midlothian Middle School on Jan. 10 at 7 p.m.
For more information, visit www.thephantomplayers.com.