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Clarence students will transport audience to Paris with production of 'Phantom'

Clarence High School presents its spring musical, "Phantom of the Opera," tonight, tomorrow and Saturday.

The production brings together hundreds of students and faculty members to tell the famous story of the haunted 19th century Paris Opera House, and of a young soprano held captive there by a terrifying musical genius.

The musical version of "Phantom of the Opera" was adapted from "Le Fantôme de l’Opéra," a French novel by Gaston Leroux. Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote the well-known music for the show, which opened on Broadway in 1988.

"The voices of the leads and the technical aspects are above what you would normally see in a high school situation," says Lou Vitello, the director of the production. Vitello is a music teacher who has worked at the high school for more than 20 years.

These aspects most definitely contributed to one of the most impressive things about this production, which is that the three performances sold out in just one day. When tickets went on sale two weeks ago, calls and emails from people across the community hoping to see the show flooded the school.

"I was taken aback by the love and support of our community," says junior Raffi Wright, who plays the Phantom. "I felt unworthy to be in such an anticipated production."

Wright, who is a seasoned veteran of the Clarence High School stage, says that he enjoys playing the Phantom because he realizes that "there’s a Phantom in each one of us. We each have our insecurities and our doubts and our fears."

As part of playing the Phantom, he spends lots of time on stage with senior Sarah Helbringer. Another veteran of the Clarence stage, Helbringer plays Christine, a character who grows throughout the show and unleashes her true potential under the Phantom’s demands.

"At the beginning of the show, she’s very timid and won’t speak up about anything. But by the end, she’s been through so much with everything turned against her, and learns so much about herself," says Sarah.

The vocal and theatrical aspects of "Phantom" are very important, but another element truly makes "Phantom" what it is: the chandelier. Famously crashed in the middle of the show, the chandelier gives Clarence’s production a unique quality not found in other area high school productions.

"The chandelier is pretty turnkey; it’s preprogrammed and ready to go," says Steve Merlihan, the technical director of the production.

"It is operated through a computer-controlled device," adds Evan Kicman, an alumni of Clarence who returned to serve as the production manager for "Phantom." "There are two motors, a travel motor and a lift motor, and they are individually controlled by a computer that manages everything."

The chandelier took two nine-hour days to install, and was delivered to Clarence in a large moving truck. Students from the school also got the opportunity to help assemble and stage the chandelier with a professional company.

"The chandelier weighs about 350 pounds, and is constructed entirely of steel and plastic," adds Kicman. He also added that the chandelier is designed so that it will not fall during a performance.

"The massive size of it, the amount of rigging it took to put it up, and all the pieces it took to make it happen was a large process," says Vitello. "We had to work with three companies to make sure all was done and put together correctly."

Everyone involved with the show had a similar reaction when first seeing the chandelier: stunned.

"I thought it was incredible," says Sarah. "We have the acting and the songs and the costumes and the lights, but when you throw that in, it makes it truly amazing."

"I was overwhelmed with the privilege it is to be in such a production at 17 years old," says Raffi. "I had chills."

Merlihan reinforces that this show is very challenging technically, also adding that "integrating projections on multiple surfaces" has been one of the most challenging parts of the show from a technical point of view.

"We’ve been working on this show from the technical point of view for 11 months, and we have a crew of over 30 who have been working on this since December," says Merlihan. "We’ve probably never had a better crew and a more hardworking crew, and we’ve also never spent as much time on a show as we have with ‘Phantom.’ "

Despite these challenges, everyone at Clarence is excited for everything to come together to present a magnificent trio of performances this weekend.

"There’s always some nerves with each show, but I’m excited to see when everyone says ‘this is it’ and pulls things together," says Helbringer.

"If I could only say one thing, it’s that I hope people will leave the CHS auditorium cherishing the love they have in their lives," says Wright. "‘Phantom’ is a story of one who is not able to accept love. I want people to be reminded of the love they have in their lives and be compelled to cherish it."

Alex Renzoni is a freshman at Clarence High School.


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