Let's get this straight from the outset which "Phantom" is which. There's that "Phantom," the omnipresent one with "of the Opera" as a suffix and music by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber. Then there's this "Phantom," by Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit, the one coming to Pittsburgh CLO Friday.
Long story short: To follow up their Tony win for "Nine," the Yeston-Kopit team created a musical based on Gaston Leroux's 1910 novel "The Phantom of the Opera." They had investors set until they were beaten by Webber & Co. to Broadway, where "Phantom of the Opera" has stayed since 1988. "Yeston and Kopit's Phantom" was completed and has been seen in hundreds of regional productions, including in 1998 at Pittsburgh CLO.
For this second time around, the local company turned to Ron Bohmer, whose CLO career began in 1988 in "The Sound of Music" and continued in "Anything Goes" (2000) and "Disney's High School Musical" (2007). He has played the title role in a national tour of that "Phantom" and also starred in the K&Y version for the Pioneer Theater in Salt Lake City, which he described as similar to CLO's summer whirlwind.
Here in Pittsburgh, "It's insanity. It moves so fast," he said Friday, a day and a half into rehearsals. "And we actually have the luxury right at this moment of moving at a fairly casual pace because the team is rehearsing so well, but every second I'm thinking, 'I can't be relaxing. There's something I must be doing because this time next week I'll be freaking out.' But if anyone knows how to do this, it's CLO."
His co-star, Erin Mackey, is seated beside him in a CLO conference room during a quick lunch break. The perky redhead was a freshman at Carnegie Mellon University when she won a swing role in the national tour of "Wicked" and hasn't looked back. She went on to play Glinda in the tour and for more than two years in L.A. and Chicago before moving to New York.
This is her introduction to the role of young opera singer Christine, the ingenue who is taken under the Phantom's wing and grows to care for the man behind the mask.
"Christine in general has been a dream role; I'm so excited I get to do this," she said. "I mean, some of Maury Yeltsin's music is so beautiful. 'Home,' come on. That's one of my favorite songs."
"Gorgeous song, and you sing it so beautifully," said Mr. Bohmer. The co-stars had spent a short time at rehearsals to this point and had yet to compare notes on their characters.
"Thank you. It's kind of a little girl's theater fantasy -- I'm alone on a stage, singing that I'm home," Ms. Mackey said.
"It's a great tune. I love Maury's stuff; it's passionate. Not that Lloyd Webber's isn't passionate 'Phantom' music, but [Yeston] writes from a really interesting place, and a cool place for singers. He really maxes you out, but ...." And they say, "in a good way" together.
When asked to explain the major differences between this version of "Phantom" and that other one, they each describe the other's character.
"This one explores the Phantom in a completely different way. He's a much more human character because you learn more about him," she said.
We find out how a disfigured man with an ear for music came to haunt a Paris opera house, and we learn his history as we see him interact with his father.
Mr. Bohmer points out that we meet Christine on the streets of Paris, giving scope to the city surrounding the opera house and catacombs.
"Also, in the Webber 'Phantom,' Christine has recently lost her father, and the Phantom plays on that as a way to pull her in, which is why that mesmerizing thing keeps happening [in the Webber version] -- because he has her fooled that he's an angel, he may be her father. This one kind of turns it on its head."
"Right," said Ms. Mackey, "it's the other way."
"In this one, she's the angel. He refers to her as, 'you are my angel of music.' And it's his parentage that we are more focused on," Mr. Bohmer said.
Another big difference is a sense of the Phantom and Christine enjoying each other's company. They actually share a laugh, Ms. Mackey pointed out. While "K&Y's Phantom" does have its creepy moments, it's less a "horror musical," she added, while her co-star compared it to a lavish MGM musical.
Both actors were impressed watching CLO ensemble members as they moved from rehearsals for "Phantom" to performing in "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," which finished Sunday.
"I can't believe that after rehearsal they all went and did 'Seven Brides,' because I was in a coma on my couch watching cable," Ms. Mackey said.
"It's fun to see because this is my third show here," Mr. Bohmer said, "and I know kids who are now major Broadway people, like Nikki Renee Daniels ['Porgy and Bess'], who was just starting when we did 'Anything Goes.' And Telly Leung, he was in [the ensemble of Broadway's] 'Godspell.' His career has really taken off."
After spending more than three years on the road with "Wicked," Ms. Mackey played the Glinda in New York, where she lives with her husband, Stanton Nash. She was last on Broadway in "Chaplin: The Musical" as Oona O'Neill and was Hope for Roundabout Theatre Company's "Anything Goes," directed by Kathleen Marshall.
Coming back to Pittsburgh for a quick gig is part of a summer of reliving and relaunching her college days. Ms. Mackey is enrolled at Hunter College in New York City and, a week after "Phantom" closes, she will leave for Paris to study in a French language program and take a little vacation time. For Mr. Bohmer, this is a summer of returning to cherished roles. He leaves for Sacramento to play Gaylord Ravenal in a California Musical Theatre production of "Showboat."
The man behind the mask for CLO explained what a first-timer to this "Phantom" can look forward to.
"I'd say nine out of 10 people in the country have seen 'Phantom of the Opera.' If you love that material, this goes even deeper," he said. "It takes you further down the rabbit hole for a uniquely beautiful experience."
Sharon Eberson: email@example.com or 412-263-1960.