The Phantom of the Opera descends on the city
Strange early morning deliveries from the back of a large truck. A ghostly looking piano, large trunks overflowing with lace and silk, an other-worldly looking chandelier. If you listen carefully in the evenings, when the wind shifts, a faint murmuring of an orchestra can be heard. Mournful singing and echoed voices are veiled but distinguishable.
People have seen things, heard things and they are talking, rumours abound. The truth needs to be told, speculation laid to rest. Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera is here.
Stomping the boards, filling the dressing rooms and the orchestra pit, the Abbey Musical Theatre is in the building.
The Phantom of the Opera spend is colossal at about $500,000 and is the most expensive locally-produced musical ever staged in Palmerston North. The Musical Theatre New Zealand Consortium has made it possible, a pulling together of purse strings and resources from seven musical theatres. It means spreading the costs of the set and costumes to make the reality of a large scale production doable.
Abbey Musical Theatre president Alan Nagy says it was the way forward in bringing some really top-class shows.
"The Phantom that we are bringing to Palmerston North is top notch, real quality. It will be superb."
It also has a professional director, Stephen Robertson and leads, Chris Crowe and Daniela Rosa Cepeda, to match. Robertson is a seasoned freelance director, who has a long list of directing, staging and designing credits to his name - all the big shows, Oliver!, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, 42nd Street, Miss Saigon, Cats, the list goes on. Robertson is known in the business for his can-do attitude and he says he has knowledge of pretty much every theatre job, onstage and backstage.
"I think all my collective experience helps, I can be quite demanding but I do like the process to be fun as well. The Phantom can't be too different, worldwide the audience has a preconceived idea on the show and the set. But each cast will interpret it a bit differently, bringing new ideas and energies."
The set has been created by production designer Allan Lees, who has worked for Opera New Zealand, the Royal New Zealand Ballet and Opera Australia. Robertson says it has all the features that the audience expects.
"It is big and lush, a visually beautiful show but a listening piece as well. The live orchestra, who are top local players, the story, the mystery and the music, this will be a show where people will be entertained with top standards."
Robertson told his cast at the first rehearsal to treat the show like a gift, saying The Phantom of the Opera was a show that had incredible power.
Palmerston North-born Chris Crowe is not a stranger to the Regent's stage or his character, the Phantom.
"I played the Phantom one year ago in Wellington and then last month in New Plymouth. You could say, I am all over the Phantom. It is the most demanding role I have had, but also the most rewarding. He is a hard character to describe, a troubled soul. He goes through a rollercoaster of emotion, a full spectrum. As an actor he is great to play. I get to completely purge myself of emotions on the stage and it is quite cleansing and something that you don't really get to do."
Crowe's theatrical career was nurtured at the Abbey Musical Theatre as well as the Manawatu Theatre Society and he has gone on to be involved in numerous shows. Based in Auckland now, he performs with La Forza for corporate events while also managing his men's fashion business. A Palmerston North Boys' old boy, Crowe says it will be great to perform in front of a home crowd.
"It's nice to stop back here for a short time, I still have family here and it is great to spend some time."
Away from home but playing a role that she knows well is Daniela Rosa Cepeda. Cepeda played Christine in Napier's production of The Phantom of the Opera last year and says being involved in the Palmerston North production is a whole new experience.
"I don't really know anyone here, but I am really enjoying the experience. I play Christine as a bit stronger perhaps than she is usually portrayed. She is a very emotive character, multidimensional and I try to make her as real as possible. She starts off as a naive young girl and her situation is real; she is manipulated and deceived. The story is actually quite disturbing and I try to make her journey from a young girl to becoming a woman visible."
Cepeda has come up through the ranks of musical theatre in her home town of Napier and she is currently studying opera at the New Zealand School of Music in Wellington. She says she is absolutely focused on singing and drama.
"It's always been that way for me and I am still deciding what I will do when I finish my studies. I will definitely continue my opera training and maybe audition for a school overseas, maybe New York."
The cast is 40 strong with an ensemble of 19 talented locals and Robertson says one to watch is Palmerston North Boys' High student Logan Church.
"He is definitely up and coming and I am sure you will see more of him in the future. He is a switched-on, cool person."
Logan says he is loving the experience of being part of such a professional group of people.
"It's great getting the chance to work with a director like Stephen. He knows what he is doing and has a really good vision. It's amazing to watch the leads, they must be so talented, being able to play the same role with a completely different cast. It's extraordinary to watch."
Five ballet dancers led by Maxene Jeffares-Greer will be creating atmosphere and Lloyd Webber's music will be led by musical director Barry Jones. Jones and Robertson have worked together on various shows and Roberstson says the experienced musical director is his lifeline.
"I know with Barry that things are in safe hands. I leave after opening night so he takes things up and keeps it moving along when I am not there."
It's a fast turnaround, with professionals making sure the end product is top class - a theatre experience that Robertson says will be outstanding, a show to be remembered.
Then up it will be packed and down south it will be shipped. The Grande Paris Opera House will become the Regent Theatre once again and the costumes readied for their next outing. The phenomenon that is the most seen show in the world will no doubt have left its mysterious mark.
The Phantom of the Opera runs from September 5 to 20 at Palmerston North's Regent on Broadway.