Wednesday, May 16, 2012

'Phantom: The Las Vegas Spectacular': VIP Experience at The Venetian 2012

The Phantom Las Vegas Playbill. (photo: TheHopefulTraveler)
A tiny "VIP" under the barcode indicates VIP Experience ticket holders.
(photo: TheHopefulTraveler)
Being an avid fan of the musical 'The Phantom of the Opera' how could I resist the Phantom VIP Experience at The Venetian. For $250, guests are given a post-show exclusive behind-the-scenes look to see what it takes to turn the 'Phantom: The Las Vegas Spectacular' into a masterpiece.

The VIP evening includes:
  • A backstage tour of the $35 million custom-built Phantom Theatre
  • A private meet and greet with the Phantom
  • Premium seating in the VIP Golden Circle Section of the Orchestra
  • A complimentary Souvenir Program
The Phantom VIP Experience is available every Tuesday thru Friday. To reserve VIP tickets contact the Phantom Box Office at (702) 414-9000.

For me, the $250 ticket price is a bargain when one considers that in New York City, premium tickets are offered at a similar price which only promises prime orchestra seats (sometimes the seats are actually not so prime). No extras are offered with the premium ticket purchase.

As the Vegas 'Phantom' is schedule to unfurl its splendor one last time when it closes on September 2nd, I was going to seize the opportunity for this unique experience before it disappears.
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Anthony Crivello, who stars as the Phantom, was kind enough to
sign the show's Playbill and souvenir program insert.
(photo: TheHopefulTraveler)
Pages from the Las Vegas Phantom souvenir program.
(photo: TheHopefulTraveler)
Immediately after being seated tonight in a center-orchestra fourth-row aisle seat it does feel kind of special to be recognized by one of the ushers with a presentation of the souvenir program and instructions for the backstage tour. The couple behind me inquired about what that was all about and they were surprised the show offered a VIP Experience tour.

Even after seeing the show just four weeks earlier last month while attending a conference in Las Vegas, I could see no wavering quality this evening in the performances or the production value. The musical remains thrilling at every turn. But I must repeat that the thrill-ride pace with which the show moves, one almost wishes it would slow down just one tiny bit so one could savor the beloved music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, the costumes and sets by Maria Bjornson, the new Vegas elements (sets and special effects) as well as the performances of Anthony Crivello as the Phantom, Kristi Holden as Christine and Andrew Ragone as Raoul and the supporting cast. The full house tonight gives the show a deserved standing ovation at the curtain call. (Click HERE for a review, with production photographs, of the April 19, 2012 performance.)

My guide this evening is Joshua and we immediately make our way across the Phantom stage to an elevator that takes us below the auditorium to meet Crivello whist his Phantom mask is removed. A few kind exchanges later, he signs both the show's Playbill and souvenir program and takes a moment to allow for a photo opportunity. Love the Phantom robe by the way.

Crivello comes to Vegas with some major stage credits including a 1993 Tony Award for best featured actor in a musical for 'Kiss of the Spiderwoman'. His role of Grantaire in the 10th Anniversary 'Les Miserables: The Dream Concert' is preserved on video.
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The Hopeful Traveler and Phantom actor Anthony Crivello.
(photo: TheHopefulTraveler)
Despite a full-house attending this evening's performance it appears I'm the only one booked for the VIP Experience. Guess it would also be a personal tour of the show. One of the things I'm surprised is that my guide indicates I'm free to take any photos where I wish. I comment that that photos are normally prohibitive. Even in the Phantom Theatre ushers hold signs that photography is now allowed. He adds that since I'm paying the big bucks for the tour, I'm allowed the exclusive opportunity.

We head over to the room where all the numerous wigs made for the show are displayed. Most of these wigs are made with real human hair and originally manufactured in Paris. But to upkeep the hairstyle of each wig, the master wigmakers have taught their skill to the artisans who work the Phantom's Vegas wig room. Immediately one can see the evidence one reason why a stage musical or play is expensive to produce. The wigs are not only made for the actor playing the role but for each of their understudies. For a time-period piece such as the Phantom almost every actor is custom fitted for a wig including beards and mustaches for the men. Each wig can be worth thousands.

There is a bright blue wig that seems misplaced in the room and Joshua indicates that the wig is indeed used in the show by one of the ensemble members in the "Masquerade" sequence. The Phantom himself wears wigs but his are used to dramatic effect to reveal his disfigurement twice in the show.
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The Phantom Las Vegas wig room. (photo: TheHopefulTraveler)
The wig at center is used by the Phantom to reveal his disfigured face.
The wig next to it shows the name of Michael Lackey who
understudies the role of the Phantom. (photo: TheHopefulTraveler)
Next it's to the depths of the Phantom Theatre right below the stage. The industrial looking room is hidden with revelations with what makes this complicated production run without a hitch. It is here that Joshua explains the use of two duplicate sets of Christines and Phantoms for the performance of the title song. At this moment in the show the two leads leave Christine's dressing room set and head backstage to take their place in the gondola that takes them to the Phantom's lair. One set of duplicate performers make their way across the stage and enter through a trap door to look like they are heading below the opera house, which Joshua points out leads to this room, while another set of actors hover above the stage to simulate the journey below the Paris Opera House on what is called the "travelator." To allow for this stage action to take place the show does use pre-recorded tracks of the actors singing until the two leads appear on stage again in the Phantom's boat. But the show runs so smoothly that the transition from pre-recorded to live is seamless.

On display is an example of the candles that rise through tiny trap doors in the stage as the Phantom and Christine make their way across the lake in the Phantom's boat. Each candle is equipped with a dual filament that mimics flickering to give it the look of real candlelight.
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The guts of the theatre right beneath the Phantom Theatre stage.
(photo: TheHopefulTraveler)
An example of the candles that rises through tiny trap doors in the stage.
(photo: TheHopefulTraveler)
What is majestic when properly lit on stage are the set pieces that are stored below which appear less spectacular when viewed in plain light. Among these include the Paris Opera rooftop that is placed against a night backdrop while Christine and Raoul sing "All I Ask of You." Also on view are the huge candelabras that are part of the Phantom's lair set. Each of these pieces appear three dimensional on stage but are actually flat when viewed from the vantage point this room offers.

Not obvious but Joshua points out the trapdoor where Raoul falls through and lands on an air cushion after jumping from a great height off the travelator above the stage and through the smoke that replicates the mist of the lake beneath the opera house. It's precise stunt work that leaves very little room for error for Ragone who plays Raoul and his understudies.

It's difficult to imagine that all the custom built machinery in this room will be gone leaving a cavernous space once the show closes in a few months.
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The Paris Opera rooftop backdrop rests below stage.
(photo: TheHopefulTraveler)
The backsides of a couple of the candelabras sits below stage.
(photo: TheHopefulTraveler)
A bank of computer consoles line one corner of this room. This is where the crew controls almost every technical aspect of the show. Everything from set movement to lighting cues are programmed in these massive banks of computers. But the show must go on and if aspects of the programs aren't working right, they can first solve the issue by manually adjusting the program to manipulate sets and lighting.

Joshua reveals a night when Sierra Boggess, who was one of the original Las Vegas Christines, tripped in a fog cloud after a trapdoor malfunctioned and didn't close. A stage manager stopped the performance for safety. She had broken two front teeth and was sent to the hospital for emergency care. An understudy resumed the role for the remainder of the show.

Though the role had this unfortunate moment for Boggess, it was in this show where she was discovered and soon landed the lead role in Disney's Broadway production of the film "The Little Mermaid" and chosen by Lloyd Webber to play Christine in the London production of the 'Phantom' sequel called 'Love Never Dies.' The exposure eventually led to her returning back to the original 'Phantom' but not to play Christine on Broadway or in Vegas but in the celebration performances of the show's 25th anniversary at Royal Albert Hall in London which was beamed across the world to movie screens and is currently available on DVD, Blu-ray and iTunes.
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Over 100 effects are automated and controlled by this system under
the theatre stage. (photo: TheHopefulTraveler)
The spike points reveals where Raoul's cage of doom is hidden below stage.
(photo: TheHopefulTraveler)
One of the elements that is exclusive to this production is the "cage of doom" which the Phantom uses to trap Raoul in lieu of the Punjab lasso in the original. The lasso was one of the weakest plot points of the original 'Phantom' production and can still be seen in New York and London. It never appeared that Raoul was in any danger as the lasso noose was far too loose to seem threatening although the actor had to pretend to be ensnared and pulled upwards by the device by standing on tiptoes. In the Vegas version, the actor playing Raoul stands in a precise spot on stage and an eight foot tall cage drives out of the floor to surround him in one second. Once trapped, 45 knives (made of rubber) are triggered that points towards his body. Then the Phantom appears to levitate the cage to six feet above the floor. Because of this cage references to the Punjab lasso that are in the original have been deleted from the story.

The stunt work at 'Phantom' is part of what makes the show 'spectacular'. A set of stunt men perform such feats as swinging from the chandelier above the audience, playing a hanged victim of the Phantom (in the original a dummy is used) and to playing the Phantom costumed as Red Death to walk down to steep "Masquerade" staircase. The Red Death mask blinds part of the performer's eye sight and for safety purposes, stunt men play this moment in lieu of the actor playing the Phantom.
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The Phantom's gondola. (photo: TheHopeful/Traveler)
Detail of the Phantom's gondola which is radio controlled.
(photo: TheHopefulTraveler)
Sitting in the the Phantom's boat.
(photo: TheHopefulTraveler)
Almost every crevice of the Phantom Theatre wings is used to store sets and props as the backstage tour leads to the auditorium's stage. These include the Phantom's gondola which also doubles as the bed in which Christine wakes up from her fainting fit. For Las Vegas, the gondola was altered to make it more elongated and improve its overall look. Joshua suggests I sit in the gondola which I do and he does take a picture but because of the extreme darkness where the gondola is stored, the picture is not illuminated well.

Other Vegas changes in the Phantom's lair include the Christine-bride doll. In the original version audiences see it after the glass has been broken. But here the doll bursts through the glass case when Christine sees it making the scene that much more dramatic.

Making use of the deep stage at the Venetian, the Phantom's lair has three arches in lieu of one as seen in other productions. Recognizing this aspect of the stage, other moments in the show had to be rethought including using a wider version of Christine's father's tomb.
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The souvenir program includes photos of the opera house
facade used to link the former two acts of the show.
(photo: TheHopefulTraveler)
The opera house staircase is neatly folded again the back of the
Phantom Theatre stage hidden behind curtains.
(photo: TheHopefulTraveler)
An entirely new piece of scenery is the luminous opera house facade that provides continuity between what was the first and second act in this intermission-free production. Add a generous dose of pyrotechnics that mimic New Year's Eve fireworks and another exciting moment is added to the play that does not exist in the original. The facade slides into place in three pieces. A central part unfolds into place followed by two segments which fly in from the wings which attach to the center piece. The entire facade then rises above the stage to reveal the grand staircase.

The facade gives the feeling of entering the opera house form the outside and also serves the purpose for placement of the opera house staircase. In the original the entire task is tackled at intermission where the staircase is set into a fixed position and revealed by huge drapery. In Vegas once the opera house facade falls away, the grand staircase is seen rotating towards the audience filled with the masked revelers. This gilded staircase weighs 18,000 pounds.
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Mannequins stand at each end of the "Masquerade" staircase. The one
in the tuxedo slides across the length of one of the steps during the number.
(photo: TheHopefulTraveler)
One of the detailed costumes worn by the staircase mannequins.
(photo: TheHopefulTraveler)
As the tour takes a close-up look at the mannequins on the opera staircase Joshua points that one mannequin slides across the length of one step while another has some arm movement. He adds there is sometimes an issue with this sliding mannequin whose hand gets caught on the costume of one of the fixed mannequins. These moving mannequins is something I had never noticed despite seeing the show in Vegas for a fourth time and would love to see the show at least once more to observe these mannequins in movement.

I think fans of the show would love the opportunity to stand on the "Masquerade" staircase and I feel lucky to have the chance. Though the staircase is folded against the back of the stage, the first few steps are accessible and the mannequins on these steps in full view.

We encounter actor Michael Lackey who plays the auctioneer in the musical's opening scene and is the standby for the Phantom. Joshua reports that Michael is ready at any moment to assume the role of Phantom if Crivello is indisposed or cannot finish playing the role during a performance.
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The Hopeful Traveler among the costumed mannequins on the
"Masquerade" staircase. 
The elephant used in the "Hannibal" opera within the show.
(above photos: TheHopefulTraveler)
Also in the wings is stored the "Hannibal" elephant which affords a couple moments of comic relief at the end of the mini-opera. It is completely hollow for two actors to sit when the piece is rolled on stage for Hannibal to climb upon. When the number is over, the prop is turned around to reveal the two actors who portray members of the period opera crew drinking within the elephant's belly.

Suspended above is Christine's dressing room set. I can just make out her dressing table, door and full-length mirror. We walk to the reverse of the set and see a cutout in the mirror which slides into place as the stage is filled with smoke so she can walk through the mirror and join the Phantom on a journey to his lair.

We walk to center stage where we can view the opulent interior of the Phantom Theatre from the perspective of the actors. Joshua comments that on many of the tours he's conducted, this is where the guests like to spend most of their time and take the most photographs. From this angle one can see the entire auditorium of 1,800 seats on two levels and the massive pieces that comprise the opera house chandelier.

This auditorium was designed with such care so it extends the experience of the live production once guests enter the theatre. It give the impression of being inside a Paris opera house done in ornate draperies, faux gaslights and romantic sculptures.
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Christine's dressing room set stored above the wings of the Phantom
Theatre. Her dressing table, mirror and door can be seen even in the
dim light standing beneath it. (photo: TheHopefulTraveler)
The reverse of Christine's dressing room set shows the a cutout in the
mirror which the actress playing Christine uses to disappear smoke to
meet the Phantom. (photo: TheHopefulTraveler)
Joshua points out the various trap doors and describe more of the decorative details of the Phantom Theatre and chandelier. I sense this is the last stop on the tour which took a full wonderful ninety minutes. I mentioned this was a fantastic experience and wished something similar would be offered for productions in New York. But we agree the myriad of union and liability issues would make regular backstage tours on Broadway prohibitive.

If so much is said and written about the chandelier it is because the original pales in comparison. One has to admit that technology was far different in 1986 when the musical first opened in London and the advances today has allowed for this "light fixture on steroids" to become a reality. The Vegas chandelier looks great from almost every seat in the auditorium where the original is actually oval and only appears circular when viewed from certain angles. And when the Vegas chandelier crashes and the theater lights go dark, the moment will leave some gasping to catch their breaths.
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A wide view of the auditorium viewed from the stage.
(photo: TheHopefulTraveler)
From this angle, the four pieces can be seen more clearly. At the start
of the musical, one of the pieces rests on the stage.
(photo: TheHopefulTraveler)
I learn that the chandelier plunges 45 feet in three seconds. One can see it is made of four interlocking tiers which during the show come together when the familiar overture begins playing. In all previous productions, there is a single chandelier that begins its journey from onstage in the auction scene and then flies over the audience to crash at intermission back on stage.

Once you can get passed the chandelier in pieces waiting to arrange themselves again for the next performance, the full splendor of the theatre comes into view: the golden baroque details of the three levels of side boxes filled with mannequins of 19th-century theatergoers representing the upper crust of the time dressed in period costumes; and the enormous 90-foot wide dome ceiling.

The ornate proscenium is hidden at the start of the show but is on full display at the end of the first scene. This is where another change was made from the original. The playing space on stage is now larger in area in this 'Phantom' by the movement of the opera boxes (especially the Phantom's Box 5) from stage right and left within the proscenium and incorporated outside of it into the theatre layout. Landings below the boxes provide additional spaces for the musical's action to be brought closer to the audience. It is on these landings where the tour begins and ends.
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According to the tour guide, this is the most popular spot for guests
to take photographs. The is the Hopeful Traveler version.
The opera boxes for the managers and the Phantom is moved to become
part of the theatre itself freeing up precious space on stage which
allowed the design team to expand on the late Maria Bjornson's
set designs. (above photos: TheHopefulTraveler)
I inquire about the wall of fire that precedes the "Don Juan Triumphant" opera segment. It appears more intense in terms of light and heat than in other productions. Joshua remarks that is the intention but it also serves a purpose to distract the audience while the sets for the "Don Juan" scene are loaded onstage. He mentions that I probably didn't know notice that the short scene featuring the magical piano was missing and he was right. It was not intrinsic to the storytelling. We talk about some of the musical numbers all of which are included in the production but he confirms that the songs "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again" and "Point of No Return" are shorter in the Vegas version.

Those who remember that there is a reprise of the song "Notes" in the manager's office will notice this segment missing as well. However this change is borrowed form the 2004 movie version of "The Phantom of the Opera" that starred Gerard Butler and Emmy Rossum and directed by Joel Schumacher. The dialogue that was within the reprise of "Notes" is incorporated into the scene when the Phantom dressed as Red Death appears on the "Masquerade" staircase.

Also like in the movie, the crashing of the chandelier is moved from what was formerly the end of Act 1 to the end of the "Don Juan Triumphant" opera when the Phantom kidnaps Christine.
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Mannequins in period costumes fill the boxes on the left side of the
Phantom Theatre. The ornate design of the proscenium arch at right is
carried into the look of the boxes.
(photo: TheHoopefulTraveler).
The boxes on the right of the auditorium. The mannequins may
disappear after the Phantom closes but the boxes could remain. One
wonders how the proscenium will be altered since the one of view
is so recognizable as part of the 'Phantom' sets.
(photo: TheHopefulTraveler)
Unfortunately we were not allowed into the costume room. Joshua reports that 229 costumes are worn in the show from actors to stagehands (who move scenery on stage) to even the conductors. The Phantom's costumes alone cost a quarter million dollars. The "Red Death" costume which is actually worn by two stuntmen in the show is constructed from seven different fabrics.

But even if the costume appears only on stage for a few seconds and shrouded in darkness, all the fabrics, designs and details are lavish. Even Madame Giry who appears to mainly wear a plain black dress has a costume made of a fabric from France. Artisans from across the world has kept the show outfitted over the years including those who make the period costume elements: shoes, gloves, hats, wigs and jewelry. Some of the costume changes take mere seconds but with dressing rooms located downstairs a makeshift one is ready in the wings. An example is when Christine changes dresses from the one she wears for "All I Ask of You" to the "Il Muto" dress and wig that she wears at the mini-opera's curtain call.

Before the tour ends we take a last glance at the pit which houses a full 18-piece orchestra, the only one in view of the audience in a Las Vegas casino theatre. It is on a melancholy note as we discuss the number of people in the show who are already looking for new work once the show closes. The tour was an amazing pleasure aided by the informative guide Joshua. I offered a number of questions and he was always prepared with definitive answers.
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The Phantom Theatre orchestra pit.  (photo: TheHopefulTraveler)
My guide this evening was Joshua who knew everything about the
the Vegas Phantom. No question stumped him.
(photo: TheHopefulTraveler)
Walking through the Phantom Theatre lobby again one can see how it alludes to a modern version of an opera house. The portion of the lobby holding the grand staircase that leads guest to the mezzanine seats has very high ceilings something not normally associated with Las Vegas casinos. It's a great space where the audience can meet, breathe, relax and get a drink. It alludes to the 19th century but is completely modern as exemplified by the glass cubes with cut-glass chandeliers inside and the stainless steel wrapped walls of the auditorium exterior. Before 2006, the lobby was the location of the hotel's Guggenheim Museum.

Once the show closes in September, the theatre will be renamed likely to be called the Venetian Theatre. There is talk that the musicals 'The Book of Mormon' or 'Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark' are candidates to replace 'Phantom'. Which elements of the uniquely designed Phantom Theatre will remain is being decided with the only confirmation that the chandelier will be set in a fixed position and become a permanent centerpiece of the venue.

Whatever new musicals arrive in the city be it here at the Venetian or elsewhere on the Strip, none are likely to match the opulence that was 'Phantom: The Las Vegas Spectacular'. This version of the 'Phantom' would have been brought to reality for 2,691 performances and six-and-a-half years by its closing date. It was a fantastic dream production while it lasted.

The Phantom Theatre box office.
With the closing of 'Phantom' and the renaming of the theatre
such decisions as the fate of the mask mosaic will have have to
be determined. (above photos: TheHopefulTraveler)


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