A night at the Opera ...

When I walked out of “Les Miserables” last year, I thought to myself, “That’s it. They’ve reached the pinnacle. It’s got to be downhill from here.”

Wrong again, Jeff. I should know by now not to underestimate the Norwich High School Musical Club. Under the tutelage of director Mark Sands, they’ve upped the musical ante year after year. There’s no way they were gonna do “Annie” after “Les Mis.”

Nope. They set the bar even higher with “The Phantom of the Opera.”

For those of you who might think staging a high school musical takes little more than a “hey gang, let’s put on a show!” let me put Norwich’s “Phantom” into perspective for you. Unlike the two million productions of “The Sound of Music” seen across the country every year, only 60-some high schools and colleges have staged “Phantom,” ever. Ever! That shows you the degree of difficulty the Tornado troupe is taking aim at here.

And hit that mark, they do. Wow. I’m not often at a loss for words (at least those of the printed variety), but yeah. Wow. From the intricate sets to the lavish costumes to the innovative special effects, “Phantom” is a spectacle in every sense of the word.

But all that spectacle doesn’t amount to much if you don’t have a talented cast to back it up. I probably say this every year (which doesn’t mean it’s not true!), but this has to be one of the most talented, well-rounded and engaged casts I’ve ever seen on the NHS stage.

Standouts abound in “Phantom,” but the real revelation for me here was Shannon Richards as our beleaguered heroine, 19th century Parisian opera singer Christine Daae. Shannon hit it out of the park as the tragic Eponine in “Les Mis” last year, but here she really gets to shine in a starring role. Her Christine is beautiful, haunted and mesmerizing. And this girl can sing, sing, sing!

And where has Mallory Norton been hiding? I don’t remember seeing her before, but again, wow. Here she plays classic prima donna Carlotta, who’s upstaged by Christine and the Phantom’s machinations. Miss Norton plays the diva part to the hilt, and I especially enjoyed her saucy and comedic turn in the opera-within-the-opera, performing “Poor Fool He Makes Me Laugh.” As her lapdog sidekick, Joshua Mahannah has a booming stage presence as Ubaldo Piangi, and shines with the company in “Prima Donna.”

While there’s understandably a lot of drama and no small amount of scares in “Phantom,” every show needs a little comic relief. Here it’s provided by Jeffrey Wilkinson and Justin Sawyer as the hapless new owners of the haunted opera company. The two, who practically insisted I interview them in unison earlier this week, make quite a duo on the stage. Watch for their expert timing in “Notes.”

Last year, Dillan Smith had a brief but memorable turn as Enjolras in “Les Mis,” but here he’s really come into his own as a leading man, playing the romantic hero Raoul, who battles the mysterious Phantom for Christine’s affections. Smith is truly a gifted singer; his duet with Richards, “All I Ask of You,” almost became my favorite musical moment of the play.

If it weren’t for that darn Phantom, that is. Pervasive and insidious, this creepy character haunts every scene, even when he’s not on stage. But when he is, watch out. Ethan Steers, ladies and gentlemen, is the star of this show, no bones about it. His Phantom is ethereal and magnetic, commanding attention with just the right mix of loneliness and madness. In reviewing “Les Mis” last year, my one regret was that I wrote it having only seen the first act. When I went back, post-column, and saw the whole thing, I was disappointed I didn’t get to write about how Mr. Steers killed it when his Marius belted out “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.” That’s why I’m glad I got to see the whole thing last night, and give Ethan his proper due. All I can say is that he, along with Richards, killed it again with “The Music of the Night.” Bravo.

If you go to see “Phantom” this weekend, and you should, I can guarantee that you will leap to your feet by the time the curtain falls on the Phantom’s lair. It’s a truly exceptional production (and I’ve literally seen them all). My hat’s off to the entire troupe – actors, musicians, costume, lighting and stage designers.

But poor Mark Sands. What’s he going to do to top this one? I’m thinking “Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark,” April, 2012.

Show times for “The Phantom of the Opera” are tonight and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., with a matineee on Sunday at 2:30. Tickets are $5 general admission. They may be purchased at the door before each performance, or in advance at First Edition Bookstore and Service Pharmacy in Norwich.

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