Tosa East Players Take on Theatre Spectacular in 'Phantom'

Challenging musical blockbuster expected to be biggest effort ever for storied drama group.

More than two-thirds of the costumes remained to be made and fitted. A life-sized elephant set-piece stood in the wings as only a wood-and-wire frame with a few wet strips of papier mache clinging to its ribs. Hundreds of light and sound cues still needed to be set.

But more than two weeks away from the first curtain, the cast, crew, orchestra and director of the Tosa East Players were psyched and confident at a recent rehearsal that their upcoming production of "Phantom of the Opera" would be a smash.

There was also universal agreement that "Phantom" already stands as the biggest challenge the high school theatre program has ever taken on.

That's saying a lot.

The East Players have never shied away from major musical productions, including "The Wizard of Oz" and "West Side Story" in years past. But there may be no show that presents so many biggest and most moments as "Phantom," especially for an amateur group.

"Certainly, I think it's the most technically challenging thing we're ever attempted," Director Thomas Thaney said. "And musically – well, (composer) Andrew Lloyd Webber never met a challenge he didn't like."

Webber is famous for monumental musicals from "Jesus Christ Superstar" to "Cats," but even within his own oeuvre, "Phantom" stands a bit apart. Besides the full-cast production numbers like "Masquerade" that are the meat of musical theatre, it contains large classical elements of opera and ballet, with almost all the dialogue sung.

Beyond that, there is simply its huge notoriety to contend with.

"It still holds the record as the longest-running show on Broadway," Thaney said. "It's been made into a movie, everyone's seen it, so one of the big challenges for us is, how do we find any new approach to this?

"The answer for me was not to, but to stay as true as possible to the original production and bring to it all the talent we have here."

In other words, the Players are taking the biggest risk of all by declining to streamline, modify or simplify their production in any way, openly inviting comparison of their student skills to exactly what millions have seen done by the biggest professional companies in the world.

"We bought the original score," Thaney said, "not abridged in any way, but note for note the original. We're doing every set piece that audiences will have seen and remembered."

That includes a chandelier so large and so technically involved that it is costing not only a lot of money but nearly 200 seats that have to be removed to accommodate it and its movements – and audience safety.

Then there is that 8-foot elephant.

"We're doing the elephant because there was an elephant in the Broadway show," said student Ellie Shapson, co-construction head for the show. "It's funny, though. It's only on once, in an early scene, and it's only onstage for about two minutes. So it's kind of a throwaway. But here it is."

Shapson bears responsibility for a lot of big set-pieces, but she has only to see to the finishing of the elephant – build up its paper skin and paint it. Improbably, its massive wooden frame was built off-site and hauled to the East auditorium.

"My dad built the elephant from scratch in our garage," said makeup mistress Sara Armstrong. "It lived in our garage."

A high degree of parental involvement has always been a hallmark of the Tosa East Players, the spirit that led financial adviser Andrew Armstrong, who is also a talented handyman, to volunteer to design and construct a life-size pachyderm.

It is well that such efforts can produce some savings for the group. Other than Thaney's position – he teaches three theatre classes along with supervizing productions – the Tosa East Players are entirely unsubsidized by the Wauwatosa School District. They rely on ticket sales to pay production costs, which in the case of "Phantom" are significant.

"The royalites alone came to $6,800," Thaney said, "and in the end the whole thing will run somewhere from $50,000 to $60,000."

So, to cover those costs, "Phantom of the Opera" will also feature the highest ticket prices – $20 for adults – that the East Players have ever charged. With the loss of seating because of the chandelier, another challenge will be to fill as many of the remaining seats as possible for a wearing run of six shows.

If it is the biggest show ever for the company, and possibly the biggest show it ever could take on, how do you follow it?

"Retire," said Thaney, who has directed the troupe for 14 years after a 30-year stint in Brookfield.

Seriously, retire?

"No," he said. "My wife will tell me when to retire. Actually, I'm already planning our fall show."

Showtime and ticket information

When: 7:30 p.m. April 8, 9, 15 and 16, with with 2 p.m. matinees April 10 and 17.
Dale K. Hidde Theatre at 7500 Milwaukee Ave.
Ticket info: Available now, online by following this link, or by calling (414) 773-2110. Adult tickets are $20, students tickets are $10, and Gold Pass tickets for seniors are $18.50.  All seats are reserved.

Kat March 30, 2011 at 04:37 AM
This turned out great! Thanks for covering our story. Can't wait to see how The Patch grows, if you'll pardon the pun.
Barbara Taylor April 02, 2011 at 06:53 PM
What does "Gold Pass" for Srs. mean? Is it 18.50 for all Srs.? Thank you.
Jim Price April 03, 2011 at 12:27 AM
Gold Passes for seniors 62 or older are issued by the Wauwatosa School District to provide free or reduced price admissions to Tosa school events, including sports events, concerts, plays and musicals. Here is a link to the district web page that describes this service: http://www.wauwatosa.k12.wi.us/Services.cfm. You may also call (414) 773-1005 or write to weinstsh@wauwatosa.k12.wi.us.
Bobby Pantuso April 03, 2011 at 01:20 AM
This really couldn't be anymore exciting. I was president of the Tosa East Players back in 1992-93'. During my time we produced several challenging shows including Godspell, West Side Story, and A Chorus Line. Several of my peers from that time went on to become professional actors, dancers, and singers. This upcoming show, Phantom, will I'm sure go down as one of the greatest shows produced at Tosa East. Never underestimate the power of high school theater and what it can be.
Drew Taylor April 03, 2011 at 02:15 PM
I too, am so proud of the Tosa East Players for taking on this challenging show. I was a member (and President) of the Players back in the 70's (with Dale K. Hidde at the Helm). I was so inspired by the work done with them, that I went onto a professional career in Theatre. Having appeared on Broadway a number of times, National Tours and at leading regional theatres all over the country. A life in the Theatre. I have been afforded opportunities in all medium...and it all began with The Tosa East Players. I have fond memories of my time with The Players. I wish them continued success. The Players is a vital and important organization and the Village of Wauwatosa is lucky to have that special access. All the best. Dave Taylor aka Drew Taylor (New York City)
Jim Price April 03, 2011 at 03:58 PM
Bobby and Drew, as two former presidents of the Players, your pride in today's troupe is entirely justified. I've never met such a devoted group of kids – turning over their lives to this monumental production while somehow still keeping up with attending regular classes, studying and doing their homework, but setting aside everything else for four months to make the most of "Phantom." They are certainly carrying on the traditions you've handed down in grand fashion.
Janie Besel April 03, 2011 at 11:18 PM
I hope that Wauwatosa residents understand how fortunate they are to have the dedicated and talented Tom Thaney working with these students. The productions of the Tosa East Players are always wonderful and of professional quality, experiences that will be memorable throughout the lifetimes of the students who have been involved in any way in the performances. More importantly, having a caring adult who leads by example, encouraging and supporting, inspiring and and understanding, while still insisting that these young people give their best on stage, behind the scenes and in the classroom, is a rare and special gift in today's world. The accomplishments achieved in these productions will be a foundation for success and self-esteem for the rest of these students' lives. Bravo, Mr. Tom, bravo!


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