There comes a moment in Santa Rosa Junior College’s “Phantom of the Opera,” where smoke and darkness dance with filtered light and reflection; where swirling costumed folk and a columned stage-within-a-stage vie for your attention; and where the pulsing orchestra and confident, full-throated voices push the mind right up to the boundaries of sensory overload.

In short, there is a moment when you realize that you are watching a great conjuring, a theatrical illusion whose magic defies easy explanation. You stare, you try vainly to take it all in and you realize that somehow you are being transported – if not exactly to Paris 1881, then still to a place that no other medium could quite take you.

Photo by Tom Chown

Photo by Tom Chown

Rare is the effect as stunning as in this production, especially for those who heretofore couldn’t fully connect with Broadway’s longest-running musical. You still may not grasp all the character motivations or the tale’s dramatic ending. But rest assured that those who enjoy stagecraft will leave with a sense that they have witnessed a dazzlingly new high-water mark in Sonoma County community theater.

The college Theatre Arts department certainly knew it was attempting to pull off what Chairwoman Laura Downing-Lee is calling “a landmark event.” Downing-Lee told a packed house at Thursday night’s opening that “Phantom” amounts to the largest single production in the department’s history and a fitting show for the 75th anniversary of the college’s Burbank Auditorium.

With its score by Andrew Lloyd Webber, “Phantom” tells the tale of a disfigured, murderous and almost supernatural musical genius who haunts a 19th Century Paris opera house. He falls in love with and is determined to make a star of a beautiful and gifted young singer there. The opera house’s wealthy patron also will come to love the same woman. Take it for granted that someone isn’t going to get the girl.

Here is a show said to be so demanding that the production double cast three of the leads in order to ensure that their voices won’t get strained. (Two professional tenors also share the role of Piangi in order to allow for scheduling conflicts.)

It’s hard to know how much the actors’ projection is helped by today’s modern sound systems. But on Thursday it was positively jaw dropping to hear such voices. Megan Fleischmann as the young singer Christine and Stacy Rutz as Carlotta sang with remarkable beauty even as they reached high notes that to the untrained ear seemed just a few steps below where crystal should be shattering. And the men, Anthony Guzman as the Phantom, Matthew Billings as the opera house patron Raoul, and Peter Benecke as Piangi all displayed a power and musicality that was stirring to hear.

(I’d love to hear about the performance of Saturday’s leads: Ezra Hernandez as the Phantom, Carmen Mitchell as Christine, Lani Basich as Carlotta and Mark Kratz as Piangi. Perhaps a gentle reader will so inform me.)

phantom image“Phantom” remains a spectacle, but under the guidance of director John Shillington the cast members breathed life into this tale and kept it moving steadily to its climax. Dance Captain Joseph Favalora and the four-member “corps de ballet” brought an extra flourish to the various operas performed as the story unfolds.

Scenic designer Peter Crompton has devised a gorgeous set with semi-complete columns and walls for the opera house. It’s as if the building has been partially peeled back to remind us that all is not at it appears.

Costume designer Maryanne Scozzari splendidly outfitted the cast for three separate operas, as well as the look of 1880s-era Paris. (You can read more about her impressive work for “Phantom” in an article here by my colleague Chris Smith.)

And the orchestra under conductor Janis Dunson Wilson gave a polished energy to the score, from bouncy opera pieces to Broadway-style crescendos to staccato synthesizers and the organ’s dread-filled cadence, the “Phantom’s” calling card.

Everyone involved in this production can take great satisfaction in what they already have accomplished. It ranks as a must-see show for anyone who fancies musical theater and wonders what heights a local company can attain.

Nine performances remain at the college’s Burbank Auditorium. The production resumes this Friday at 8 p.m. and continues through Dec. 7 with a selection of matinee and evening performances. For ticket information, click here.

— Robert Digitale

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