Saturday, 20 September 2014 00:05
Wondrous singing rang through the hall as I walked in to a rehearsal of the Workshop Players’ (WSP) Amateur presentation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, by arrangement with the Really Useful Group Ltd., last weekend.
As the doors of the Wendt opened on the morning of 16 September, theatre-goers were already queuing up to be the first to grab their tickets of the long-awaited production, directed by none other than the ‘Master of Illusion’ himself, Jerome L. De Silva.
Seated at the back of the hall sipping tea out of his Phantom Magic mug, Jerome looks on at rehearsals in session, whilst he shares some thoughts on his upcoming production.
“I’m very excited to be working on this production again after 12 long years, especially as we’ve all matured as a group, and even stage craft has greatly advanced over the last decade, we will be able to do so much more with the production. Phantom of the Opera is all about the magic and ‘razzmatazz’. It is the grandeur and plushness of the production that draws audiences to it and what makes it stand out from most other Broadway productions. If someone is fortunate enough to go to Broadway or the West End, and is able to watch at least one production, it’s usually the Phantom of the Opera. It’s the whole mystery and magic of it that everyone wants to experience.”
Having watched Phantom on Broadway twice and in Singapore once, Jerome says that his recent trip to Broadway was to refresh his mind on characterisation. Whilst there, they had got the opportunity to get a Backstage Tour of the Phantom of the Opera, and “I was even able to sing a part of the ‘Music of the Night’ on a Broadway stage. The experience was quite amazing,” he said.
“This line sung by the Phantom ‘…this face which earned a mother’s fear and loathing. A mask, my first unfeeling scrap of clothing…’ resonates deeply with me, because it’s so poignant and highlights the misery and wretchedness of deformity and disability. The phantom is very similar to the character of Shakespeare’s Richard III who had a similar take on his hideous deformity. Both these characters are so similar in that, no matter how many terrible acts they commit, even murder, the audience is always left feeling sorry for them. I know how emotional it was to play this role, so one can only imagine how people with disability are made to feel when surrounded by so-called ‘normalcy’.
However liberal people strive to be, or however differently they try to think, often insisting on the ‘politically-correct’ term by which to refer to people with disabilities, it merely glosses over the reality. For instance, in the local context, we see a rise in leprosy and even though it was completely eradicated before and there is a cure for the disease, it is difficult to find volunteers to go out and work with patients. It’s because the stigma surrounding leprosy and disability is still so high. Like the Phantom, I ask ‘why???’”
“I must add that this production has been an absolute cakewalk due to my amazing Committee and Production Crew. Also, Surein De S. Wijeyeratne has done a great job as always with the music direction, as has Shanuki de Alwis with choreography, along with Kevin Cruz who assisted with some of the ensemble choreography, whilst Thushan Dias, Gihan Jayatilleke and Rohan Jayatilleke will, as always, handle the lighting and special effects. Having senior Workshoppers take on a bulk of the responsibility goes to show how much we’ve grown as a group over the years, and that we’re now ready to take on anything,” he adds with pride.
“As always, I’m immensely grateful to Cargills Ltd. And particularly Ranjith Page for always supporting us and challenging us to take on shows of this scale, because they believe in us,” he concludes.
As one of the best sopranos in the country, Kumudini David, (playing the role of Carlotta at this rehearsal), powered through Prima Donna, pitching notes I barely knew existed, I spoke to the wind beneath the wings of the production, Jovanka Jayaweera, President of the WSP Committee and some of her team.
It’s often easy to overlook the unsung heroes working tirelessly behind the scenes, little realising that a production is virtually ‘made’ off-stage. From checking if a feather had been fixed onto the Phantom’s fedora in time for the photo shoot, to, marking tickets till 5 a.m., it’s the President, her Committee and the production team that has to look into it all.
“This production holds a special place in my heart as it was my first production with WSP way back in 2002, (when the show unfortunately had to be cancelled as WSP couldn’t get the performing rights in time), and because I met my husband of four plus years now 12 years ago at WSP,” said Jovanka, reminiscing fondly.
Speaking about her first year as WSP President, she says: “Initially it was terrifying! It’s probably been one of the toughest productions undertaken, as there are a million production and technological aspects to look into. Managing the 63-strong cast has been an absolute logistical nightmare, for instance, coordinating costumes, props and transport, etc., but, it’s truly been a team effort with the entire committee and production team rallying around to bring this production to life.”
“It’s also been quite a feat balancing and delegating tasks to the various committees overseeing costumes, backstage, public relations, media, tickets, to name a few of the numerous production aspects that need to be looked into. Personally, I’ve learnt so much from Jerome on how to handle people and situations and am in awe of how he’s managed to do it for the past 22 years,” she adds.
I was barely able to extract even these few words from her, as she was interrupted at least five times in between our conversation with numerous queries, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous, regarding the production. And of course she had answers them all! This in essence, is how the cog in the WSP wheel runs… nonstop!
Next up is a WSP old-hand, Jehan Aloysius, now a writer, composer and director in his own right, best known for his memorable performance as Jean Valjean in the WSP production of Les Miserable. Jehan’s poignant depiction of the Phantom (as played on the day), was able to both awe the audience with his commanding presence, and bring them to tears when portraying the intense vulnerability and deep anguish of the disfigured and lonely man.
“It’s been great to be back with the Workshop Players since the last production I was part of in 1998, as ‘Scar’ in the Broadway musical ‘The Lion King’. Playing the Phantom has always been my dream role, since I first heard the soundtrack about 20 years ago. Also, having just returned from a disability arts festival in London, where we came to realise that the word disability is in fact politically correct, as it is about being disabled by society. And all these people were performers who would create their own work, whereas in Sri Lanka you have others creating productions for them. As for me personally, I connect even more with the Phantom, as I live with pain 24/7, as I suffer from scoliosis, a degenerative condition that affects the spine. So I push myself into art, as I identify with the Phantom who is able to find beauty and positive energy through creating something. I’ve always felt that you should never leave the earth the way you came in, as in your life should have an impact, and I believe that’s what the Phantom is doing in a way,” elaborated Jehan.
“The Phantom has only 40 minutes on stage in the entire show. But, the impact he has is still very tiring to create. Also, working with multiple Christines has been very challenging, as you have to build chemistry with each of them and understand their comfort zones, as each performer is very different. I think they’re all fantastic but they’re very individual in their portrayals,” he explained.
Dhanushi and Tharindu
And finally we get to hear from two newcomers to the WSP family. Dhanushi Wijeyakulasuriya (24), playing the role of Christine, say she wanted to join WSP “after I watched their last two productions, Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar, as everyone on stage seemed to be having such a blast!” So, having just completed her degree in Industrial Statistics, she said that she was “finally free and wanted to be part of the production, no matter what the role”.
“When I heard that it was Phantom, I was even keener as I knew all the songs from it, having sung with Menaka De Fonseka Sahabandu from 2004. Being more of a singer than an actress I found the characterisation and dancing quite challenging. However, the seniors and the trained dancers helped me out by going through the choreography over and over again until I learnt it,” she added.
Tharindu Perera (19), playing the role of Joseph Buquet, said: “I first heard about Phantom audition from Jerome, as he trains my school, St. Benedict’s College, for the Shakespeare competition. Even though I knew nothing about the production, I was keen to even help backstage. I wasn’t even going to audition for a speaking role but Jehan encouraged me to go for it, so I did and now I’m the youngest of the speaking roles,” he said, with a laugh.
For those who wish to experience the magic, mystery and grandiose spectacle that is the Phantom of the Opera, on board the Lionel Wendt Stage from 1-12 October (excluding 8 October), starting at 7:30 p.m., get your tickets now.
‘The Phantom Awaits Your Pleasure…’
Pix by Andre Perera