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Published: Thursday, 12/28/2006

What makes 'Phantom' a favorite?

BY NANCIANN CHERRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Actor John Cudia says it s no problem that the audience never gets to see his face. And the fact that his character never gets the girl doesn t bother him, either. Actor John Cudia says it s no problem that the audience never gets to see his face. And the fact that his character never gets the girl doesn t bother him, either.
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Quick: What has 36 cast members, 37 scenery and electrical operators, 60 other crew members, 160 wigs, 230 costumes, and 141 candles rising out of the stage?

If you can answer that, you're a phantomphile, a superfan of Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera.

It may be hard to believe, but Webber's Phantom is more than 20 years old, having had its world premiere on Oct. 9, 1986, in London. It opened on Broadway in January, 1988, and earlier this month began its 15th year on tour in Philadelphia.

John Cudia, who plays the title character in the current tour, which opens Wednesday in the Stranahan Theater for a 3 1/2-week run, has no difficulty in understanding the show's popularity.

"I think it's sort of deceptively simple. It's a love story that is combined with very passionate music and a beautiful theatrical experience," he said in a telephone interview from Philadelphia.

And, he added, even for those who aren't particular fans of opera-style music, there's plenty to see, from the elaborate costumes and equally elaborate sets.

"I think it's a very simple formula of those elements coming together that provides something for just about everyone to enjoy."

Cudia should know what he's talking about. For the last decade he has been associated with the two longest-running shows in Broadway history: Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera. He made his Broadway debut in Les Miz, starting as a member of the ensemble and working his way up the chain until he played the lead of Jean Valjean. For Phantom, he began as the understudy to Raoul, then later took over the role until he moved on to playing the title character. According to his biography, he is the only actor to have appeared as Valjean and the Phantom on Broadway.

His current character is pretty much the iconic role of the modern musical theater era, he says, and the fact that the audience never actually sees his face is no problem at all.

"In fact, I see that almost as a positive. It's kind of refreshing as an actor to have that challenge of what would be considered kind of a normal appearance taken away from you, and it's a lot of fun to feel like you have the freedom to really perform from the inside out as opposed to being seen from the outside."

And the fact that he never gets the girl doesn't bother him, either.

"I played Raoul for a long time, so I got the girl plenty then."

But perhaps that's getting ahead of the story, which is based on a 1910 novel by Gaston Leroux. In it, a masked recluse lives in the catacombs beneath the Paris Opera House, obsessed with Christine Daa, a beautiful young soprano who has become his secret pupil. He engineers her stage triumph, then kidnaps her in outrage when she falls in love with Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny, a handsome young nobleman.

Although many people have become well-known for playing the Phantom, including Michael Crawford, who won a Tony Award for his Broadway performance, and Colm Wilkinson, who won a Dora (the Canadian version of the Tonys) for his work in the Toronto production, Cudia says he doesn't even try to mimic their performances.

"You really do try to make it your own," he said, adding that it's important to him to be as emotionally honest with the audiences as possible.

"As far as the people who have done the role before, I guess you try to think of it as no one really has ownership of the role. You just have the opportunity to play it for a certain amount of time, and this is my turn to do it."

Other members of the cast of the national tour include Marni Raab as Christine, Michael Gillis as Raoul, Kim Stengel as Carlotta, star of the Paris Opera House's company; D.C. Anderson and Bruce Winant as the opera house owners, and Kate Wray as Meg, the best friend of Christine.

Cudia, who was born in 1970, grew up in Toms River, N.J., where, he said, his parents enjoyed listening to music but weren't particularly musical. He took drum lessons when he was young and was involved in high school plays and concerts. His road to musical theater seriously began with Les Miserables.

"It just didn't occur to me that [musical theater] was a way that you could spend your life and make money and have a career, and it really wasn't until I saw Les Miz that I thought this is a profession that I need to be a part of."

He decided to get his theater degree from Fordham University's campus at Lincoln Center in Manhattan, where he started auditioning even before he graduated. After 18 months of work in regional theater, he made his Broadway debut in Les Miserables.

"It was an amazing way to start," Cudia said, adding that he spends a lot of time pinching himself because of the length of his success.

One key to that success that doesn't get enough credit, Cudia said, is the stage crew, whose members make it easy to perform in different cities, on different stages.

"They really do an incredible job of creating almost an identical atmosphere backstage in terms of where props, where costumes, where set pieces live, if you will, so when we get to the next theater, with the exception of the layout of the dressing rooms the show is very, very similar. We can, essentially, just walk in and do the show.

Another thing that Cudia enjoys about touring with The Phantom of the Opera is the length of its stay in any particular city. Because of the complexity of moving the show, a production generally is mounted for three weeks or more.

"Phantom is really the only tour left that has the audience demand to be able to stay in a place for so long, and it does give the cast and crew an opportunity to unpack their bags and live as close to a normal life as you can on the road."

Despite his long associations with The Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables, Cudia says he has his sights set on other roles.

"I think it has to do with the kind of music I grew up listening to that I'm kind of a sucker for the older, more classical musical theater," he said. "It's been a dream of mine to play Emile De Beque [in South Pacific], and I'm hoping at some point to be able to do that."

That Rodgers and Hammerstein musical is a favorite of Toledoans, so if Cudia gets his wish, we might be seeing him again. For now, though, we'll have to look behind the mask for the man who's The Phantom of the Opera.

"The Phantom of the Opera" opens Wednesday and runs through Jan. 28 in the Stranahan Theater, 4645 Heatherdowns Blvd. Shows are scheduled at 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. There is an additional performance at 2 p.m. Jan. 4. Ticket prices range from $25 to $70 and are available through the Stranahan box office or Ticketmaster, which adds a service fee. Information: 419-381-8851.

If The Phantom of the Opera isn't enough for area Andrew Lloyd Webber fans, Cats is scheduled Wednesday in Lima.

The production begins at 8 p.m. in Crouse Performance Hall of the Veterans Memorial Civic & Convention Center, 7 Town Square. Tickets are $51. Information: 888-377-0641.

Contact Nanciann Cherry at: ncherry@theblade.com or 419-724-6130.



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