The first all-Kiwi, Wellington production of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera delivers nothing short of a world-class experience, says director Grant Meese.
"Every time I work in Wellington, I'm hugely impressed with the amount of creative talent."
By its very nature The Phantom of the Opera is a lavish show with extravagant costumes, sets and special effects. Wellington Musical Theatre's aim is to deliver a first-rate product, Meese says.
"The nice opportunity with this is with [Phantom] coming into New Zealand, we did have an opportunity to put a fresh New Zealand design on it. It's not a copy of the original."
The audience can expect to see an array of special effects with a "bit of Kiwi No 8 wire and ingenuity".
But as with any theatre, the real drawcard is the cast talent, and Meese is not short of praise.
There were more than 130 auditions for the 39 places in the cast and there was more talent than he knew what to do with.
"As with any auditions, you get a bit nervous about what you're going to get ... I was in a very lucky position that I could have probably cast the show twice. You can't always say that."
Wellington Musical Theatre's The Phantom of the Opera is a non-professional production, and Meese explains that many of the cast have full-time jobs outside the show. However, the production should not be considered "amateur".
"The only difference between us and professional companies is that we don't do it on a full-time basis," he says. "We've got a vast array of people that you could actually very easily put into West End or Broadway."
Unfortunately, there simply isn't enough work in New Zealand to easily sustain full-time musical theatre. In the lead-up to opening night, cast members were regularly rehearsing until 11pm, up to four nights a week, often after a full working day, and doing 12-hour days on the weekends.
"I said to the cast and crew for the last few nights [before opening] that you always have some hardships during this period leading up to opening night. Things don't always go as you'd like them to go," Meese says.
"I keep saying to them it's just like building blocks, it's like building the wall: every night we add a layer, and eventually we get there. But we have to be tenacious and we have to work together. It's an amazing process to watch."
The cast rehearsed individually for six to eight weeks before they were brought together at the theatre to begin constructing the show as a whole.
"I've got great respect that they just keep coming in, that they have a great passion for it."
For the month that Phantom is showing, the cast and crew are putting in six nights a week as well as doing their day jobs. "It just shows to what extent people will go to, to be part of the brand."
The Phantom of the Opera "brand" is clearly a sense of pride for Meese, who says he was lucky to have the opportunity to apply to be director and to be considered appropriate to be at the helm.
Meese is based in Auckland, but this is his fourth show with Wellington Musical Theatre, having directed Cats, Miss Saigon and The Sound of Music. He jokes that he may be the only person in the show not from Wellington.
He is clearly elated that Lloyd Webber entrusted the company to produce the show.
"You advertise it with the mask and it's a hugely recognisable logo. It's a brand ... it's like Levi's. If you started putting cheap denim on Levi's, you'd soon get an uproar about it. You have to live true to the product."
The Phantom of the Opera is at Wellington's St James Theatre until July 6.
- © Fairfax NZ News
Have you read Kiwi author Eleanor Catton's Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Luminaries?Related story: What now for Eleanor Catton?