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Grand Ledge Production Was All I Ask of 'Phantom'

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I've had the good fortune of being able to see stage productions of "The Phantom of the Opera" in Detroit, London, and Toronto - the latter starring Paul Stanley of KISS as the Phantom.

It's one of the first shows I remember seeing on stage, and I am still moved by the story and music of Andrew Lloyd Webber's masterpiece of a musical.

So it was delight mixed with a spark of doubt and curiosity when I heard that Grand Ledge High School was going to perform it as their spring musical.

The $80,000 budget was a jaw-dropping figure that only added to the allure and curiosity about how it would all be pulled off.

According to the show's director, Dr. Steve Delp, taking on "Phantom" came from students who approached him with the idea.

"Once I decided to direct 'Phantom' and simply saw the cost of the production rights, I quickly realized there was an extremely high monetary risk attached to this show, and to say it has kept me up at night is a bit of an understatement," Delp wrote in his director's note.

The chandelier - a key set piece with its own dramatic moments in the show - alone cost $15,000.

There were also many challenges facing the director and his young cast, including the demanding vocals, intricate sets and choreography, and high expectations. Without a strings program, Grand Ledge enlisted the help of Okemos High School and MSU students to fill the 35 member orchestra pit.

The hours upon hours of building sets to rival professional traveling companies and rehearsals made producing "Phantom" a labor of love.

And when I settled into my front row seat in the auditorium at Grand Ledge High School, the chandelier slumped on stage underneath canvas cloth, ready for the auction scene in the prologue, I was ready to see what all of that hard work would yield.



From top to bottom, Grand Ledge High School's production of "The Phantom of the Opera" was a high class venture. I had to remind myself throughout the show that these were high school students. I imagined the time spent rehearsing each piece of music, each set change, and each heart-wrenching moment, and it made me wonder how everyone involved made it happen along with schoolwork and other commitments.

The painstaking attention to detail - from the first appearance of the Phantom in the mirror of Christine's dressing room to the Phantom's murky underground lair lit by candelabras to the use of the auditorium's own balcony space for the box seats of the Opera Populaire - shows just how much the cast and crew wanted the show to be elevated to a higher standard.

Painted, two-dimensional backdrops are fine for high school productions, but the grandness and opulence of "The Phantom of the Opera" requires a feeling of reality only accomplished by integral set pieces, costumes, and props. A production team that greatly outnumbered the cast itself (the construction team for the grand staircase that appears in Act II actually accomplishes that on its own) ensured the ability to transport the audience.

An $80,000 budget, all self-funded through donations and ticket sales, will obviously help in setting the stage for a professional production, but money cannot buy talent.

Luckily for the audience, the caliber of talent from Grand Ledge made this "Phantom" soar.

The vocally-demanding roles of The Phantom, Christine Daae, and Carlotta Giudicelli were double cast in order to provide relief to the cast members.

At the Sunday matinee performance I attended, it was the final performance for senior leads Robert Mueller (Phantom), Erin Fillingham (Christine), and Nicole Paparelli (Carlotta), and the second-to-last for Tyler Lorencen (Raoul), who played his role in all six performances.

Those familiar with "Phantom" might have had the voices of Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman in their heads, and fortunately for the audience, the vocal ability throughout the cast was astounding to say the least. Aside from the intricate set pieces, the audience buzzed during intermission about the talented cast.

Erin Fillingham as young ingenue Christine Daae was pitch-perfect in the role, with frightened, big blue eyes and a piercing soprano voice. As the only cast member to spend a significant amount of time alone on stage, Fillingham shined during her solo performances, especially the achingly sad "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again" at her father's gravesite.

For Fillingham, playing Christine Daae has been a dream role. "This has been the most amazing experience in my life. Ever since I was in about fourth grade, this is what I wanted to do. So the chance to do this is unbelievable."

Robert Mueller, who starred as The Phantom, captured the tortured, mad genius quality of the man who lives in darkness but yearns for beauty. The actors playing The Phantom spent hours with makeup artists to achieve the deformities of his face, often covered by the famous white mask.

I asked Mueller to describe the final moments of his last show at Grand Ledge: "It was awesome. I couldn't have asked for a better show. The last line of the song always gets me: 'It's over now, the music of the night.' This is going to be my favorite memory of my time at Grand Ledge - this is my seventh show, and I'll remember everyone I've met."

Nicole Paparelli and Tyler Lorencen also spoke of their fondness for their fellow cast and crew - both have appeared in several productions at Grand Ledge, but feel that "The Phantom of the Opera" has allowed them to leave on a high note.

"It's the best thing I could ask for. This musical is the best thing to end on. This show has been a wonderful gift," said Lorencen, who is planning to pursue music in California.



It's no 'Masquerade' - Grand Ledge High School has accomplished an incredible feat of bringing "The Phantom of the Opera" to life right here in mid-Michigan. I'm not sure where else one could attend a Broadway-caliber stage show for $15, and it might be awhile before we see the likes of it again.

For this Phan, it was all I ask of "Phantom".

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