Tonight the Senior School production of The Phantom of the Opera debuts to a nearly sold-out crowd at the McPherson Playhouse. For months, students, teachers, parents and volunteers have been preparing for this exciting three-day, four-performance run of the world-famous musical.
And playing the lead role in the show are two Grade 12 students who are no strangers to the stage. Ethan Otto and Ajay Parikh-Friese share the title role, each playing the Phantom in their own mysterious and wonderfully engaging way.
Both students have a deep history in the performing arts – Ethan has worked with such companies as Langham Court Theatre, Victoria Operatic Society and Victoria Youth Musical Theatre Company, while Ajay has worked with Pacific Opera Victoria, The Belfry Theatre and Kaleidoscope Theatre.
The pair also have performed together on occasion at SMUS, including acting in the 2011 Middle School musical, Oliver!, and in last year’s Senior School production of Legally Blonde.
We sat down with one of our Phantoms – Ethan – to talk about his experience working on the musical and what it’s like playing one of the most iconic roles in modern theatre.
How familiar were you with the musical before getting the role?
I was quite familiar. When I was 13 I played in Les Misérables, and that’s when I really got into listening to musical soundtracks because I really got into Les Mis. I was probably closer to 14 when I first heard Phantom, and then when the 25th anniversary recording with Ramin Karimloo came out [in 2011] that was such a big moment. I’d heard it played and sung before but nobody ever really sang it like he did. Although he’s not technically perfect, he took a lot of liberties with the music and the way he portrayed the character and the emotion – it gave me a whole other view for Phantom. Playing the Phantom has been on my list of dream roles for a while; I never thought I’d get to play him this young. What really attracted me to this musical is not only the music that Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote –these swooping lines that carry down into soft, tender moments – but these deep characters.
What is the Phantom like as a character?
No matter how much you play with this character, he’s not just like a stock romantic character or a stock villain. It’s really interesting because he has to be played in such a way that the audience has to love him and want to like him and want to feel sorry for him and want to feel pitiful, but also be scared and angry with him and hate him. It’s really fun to play with the balance of all the characteristics of Phantom – the set character traits that have to be there – and then finding your own traits to bring to the character.
How do you and Ajay play the role differently?
Ajay has done a lot more work acting than I have, and I have done a lot more work singing in musicals. He’s done more plays, I’ve done more musicals and operettas. Ajay is really, really good with becoming the character and there are some spoken lines that he says so well. The biggest difference, I think, is the way that we interact with our Christines. Ajay does a really good job playing it really creepy and doing subtle, small things that make you twinge.
What has the experience been like performing in a SMUS musical?
Like any show, it’s stressful and it’s a lot of work, but underlying all that is a lot of fun, and playing around, and finding your character, creating relationships with your cast-mates. One thing I love about this rehearsal process is you work on the musical and you get introduced to the material way before Christmas, but it’s not until you come back in January where you feel, ‘Oh my gosh, the show’s really soon.’ It adds an element to the show that you don’t often see because every time it’s played, it’s fresh, and it never lacks energy. My favourite part of the rehearsal process has to be working with my cast-mates and getting to work with another Phantom. Being double-cast provides the show with a great opportunity; not only can you create your own character, but I can pick things that I like about Ajay’s character and make mine stronger and better than it would be if I had just worked on it by myself.
Had you performed in a SMUS musical before?
Yes, last year I was in Legally Blonde, and the year before I did Spamalot. At the Middle School I was in Oliver! and I was in There’s a Monster in My Closet in Grade 5. I’ve also done plays at SMUS – The Diary of Ann Frank, Our Town and Tartuffe. I’ve also done a lot of work in the community, with the Victoria Youth Musical Theatre Company, Langham Court Theatre and Victoria Operatic Society. All of this has been great and has really started to shape my view of music and theatre – it’s something I can’t live without now; I just love it.
What is it about performing and musical theatre that you love so much?
The people are so fun, and when you get into a show it becomes like family. It’s such a tight-knit feeling, you get to know everyone so well, you get to become friends with everyone, everyone looks out for you. And also that feeling when you get onstage and you get to become this other person. You create a character – it’s your character, you get to play with it, and you get to do stuff you’d never do in real life. In my last show I got punched in the face by a girl real hard and I went flying across the stage, in this show I kill people. You get to become these people and think like these people who go to these extremes. It’s such a great feeling when you finally become your character and you step in their shoes.
How are you feeling ahead of opening night?
I’m feeling really good about it. Some of the most amazing shows I’ve been in have been shows where you don’t even finish blocking a scene until preview night because everything’s fresh and character connections don’t get tired and the show doesn’t lack energy. We’re at the point where everyone knows all their stuff and that feeling of freshness is still there. Once you get that audience in front of you, it’ll be a blast of energy and it’s just going to be amazing!
Why should people come see The Phantom of the Opera?
Everything’s over-the-top big: big numbers, big technical aspects like lighting and costumes, big suspense, big drama. It’s a production that I feel like everyone has to see in their lifetime because it’s such a pivotal piece in music and theatre. The Phantom of the Opera has been around over 25 years, and every time it’s playing it’s played differently, so no matter how many times you’ve seen it, it’s going to be a different show because it’s so big and there are so many layers to it.
The Phantom of the Opera runs nightly at 7:30 p.m. from February 25-27, with a 2 p.m. matinee on February 27. Tickets and more information are available on the McPherson Playhouse website.
Earlier, the News site introduced you to Emma Heusser and Victoria Schickhoff, the two actresses sharing the role of Christine Daae, as well as Sid Boegman and David Gardiner, the two actors sharing the role of Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny.
Do you want to read about some of our past musicals? Last year, the Senior School put on Legally Blonde, while the Middle School performed The Wizard of Oz. In 2014, Spamalot was the Senior School production, and in 2013 we were treated to The Secret Garden at the Senior School, and Annie at the Middle School.
(photos by Kent Leahy-Trill and Kyle Slavin)