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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A poster for the favored present “The Phantom of The Opera” is seen on the outside of the shuttered Majestic Theatre in New York, U.S., July 2, 2020. REUTERS/Mike Segar/File Picture

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By Jonathan Allen

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Meghan Picerno was again at work after 18 months of pandemic limbo, overjoyed to be singing and dancing once more along with her “Phantom of the Opera (NASDAQ:)” castmates as they rehearsed for the return of Broadway’s longest-running present.

Because the musical’s late October reopening neared, typically all Picerno may take into consideration was making it to the primary curtain name unscathed by the breakthrough COVID-19 instances that had sidelined vaccinated actors at different reveals.

Exterior lengthy days in a cold mirror-lined rehearsal studio close to New York Metropolis’s Instances Sq., Picerno had put herself again on what she referred to as lockdown.

“I am a full-on monk now,” she stated throughout a rushed lunch break between back-to-back run throughs.

She knew her job got here with dangers of publicity. Taking part in the present’s heroine Christine required Picerno to kiss two co-stars each day and to sing full-throated love songs with them unmasked and at shut vary.

“Hopefully, none of us have it, as a result of if one among us have it, all of us have it,” she stated.

The crowded Broadway theaters, very important to the town’s tourism trade, have been the primary locations closed by the New York authorities because the coronavirus started to ravage the state. Phrase of the abrupt shuttering got here throughout a “Phantom” matinee on the Majestic Theatre on March 12, 2020, as some solid and crew themselves have been falling sick.

Now, after an unprecedented shutdown, the theaters are among the many final workplaces to reopen. Their return this fall is seen as a check of the town’s efforts to revive some new sense of normalcy.

Reuters watched because the “Phantom” firm ready for its return. The pandemic left unmistakable marks.

Inside a number of weeks of the present going darkish, COVID-19 had claimed the lifetime of a beloved dresser, Jennifer Arnold, who had been with the present for greater than three a long time.

After protests stuffed U.S. streets final 12 months in outrage on the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer, newly unemployed Broadway employees pushed the trade to make overdue adjustments to extend racial variety in theater firms.

In August, “Phantom” producers introduced they’d solid the first-ever Black actor to play Christine for the reason that present opened on Broadway in 1988. The actor, Emilie Kouatchou, would make her Broadway debut as an alternate for Picerno.

For the returning solid, there have been tweaks to lyrics and staging to study, making it extra easy to solid non-white actors in principal roles. The complete firm was required to be vaccinated and twice every week went to get their noses swabbed at a close-by theater foyer repurposed as a brief coronavirus testing web site.

Picerno stated she was pleased to embrace no matter was wanted to get again on stage.

At midnight days of 2020, dwelling again in North Carolina along with her dad and mom and claiming unemployment advantages, she stated she “nearly felt like a failure.” She sang her half on daily basis to maintain it recent in her thoughts till the singing made her too unhappy and she or he stopped.

Emotion once more overcame her on the primary day reunited along with her castmates in late September. Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber had swung by the studio to ship a pep discuss to the solid earlier than they sang by means of the acquainted rating.

Picerno’s singing dissolved in tears throughout the love duet “All I Ask of You.”

“Sing alongside! Assist her!” the conductor urged the masked refrain, whose voices carried Picerno till she regained her composure.

‘THINK OF ME’

Just a few days later, the solid practiced dance steps in a mixture of avenue garments and the bulkier elements of their Nineteenth-century-style costumes.

Picerno drew a shawl by means of her fingers as she danced and sang “Consider Me” in her bell-like soprano. Off in a nook of the studio, Kouatchou silently mirrored Picerno’s each transfer.

Kouatchou, the daughter of immigrants from Cameroon, grew up within the Chicago suburbs. “Phantom” was the primary Broadway present she ever noticed, on a visit to New York along with her highschool. She remembers being transfixed by Christine.

“I may sing that function in my sleep,” she recalled pondering.

Nonetheless, she nervous about stereotyping, that some would see a mismatch in her voice, an operatic soprano, and her look, which was not the kind of “petite white woman” who appeared to at all times get solid as a present’s ingénue or heroine.

“I did not really feel like I had a spot in musical theater as a result of I did not see anybody who seemed like me who sung like me,” she stated.

COVID-19 had each upended reside theater and made house for progress.

“The pandemic was horrible,” Kouatchou stated. “However we would not be capable of have conversations like this and alter issues like this if it hadn’t been for the pandemic.”

Now, because the Phantom begins making his terrifying presence recognized in Act One, a frightened ballet dancer turns to the heroine and sings: “Christine, are you alright?”

Earlier than the pandemic and Kouatchou’s casting, the lyric had at all times been: “Your face, Christine, it is white!”

The outdated, creepy Christine doll that stood within the Phantom’s lair, her options unmistakably white, additionally was out. A brand new doll, designed to be racially ambiguous, would debut on reopening evening.

Later that week, Kouatchou received her first glimpse of one of many new Christine wigs designed to match her hair texture.

“It is curlier and frizzier and I adore it,” Kouatchou stated.

‘THE POINT OF NO RETURN’

On the primary full day of stage rehearsals on the Majestic Theatre, members of the corporate waited to indicate vaccination proof in an alleyway lined with trash cans resulting in the stage door.

Backstage, masked dressers who assist actors rapidly change costumes within the darkness of the wings have been testing options to the bitelights they’d gripped of their tooth pre-pandemic. They experimented with little lamps strapped to their foreheads or on gloves, hoping they would not confuse audiences by taking pictures out beams of sunshine throughout the stage mid-show.

From the orchestra seats, John Riddle, who performs the present’s hero Raoul, marveled at one of many dazzling spotlights excessive up within the proscenium. Its beam used to light up a “fixed cloud of mud,” he stated.

“The truth that it is clear now means one thing to me,” he stated. “They are saying it is the cleanest a Broadway theater has ever been.”

Even so, there was worrying information from reveals close by. The Disney musical “Aladdin” was compelled to shut for 2 weeks quickly after its September reopening as a result of too many actors examined constructive for the coronavirus.

Maree Johnson, who performs the black-clad ballet mistress Madame Giry, stated she was resigned to the chance that “Phantom” additionally would file breakthrough coronavirus instances.

“It should occur eventually,” she stated.

9 days later, on Friday afternoon, Picerno was in her dressing room when she opened the e-mail with outcomes of her last coronavirus check forward of reopening evening. Aid washed over her. It was unfavourable.

That evening, viewers members wearing night robes, bow ties and the occasional “Phantom”-style costume crowded the theater doorways, fishing out proofs of vaccination.

“Welcome again to Broadway!” chirped the newly employed COVID security displays who waved giant indicators saying “MASKS UP” on the viewers inside.

Backstage on the prime of a staircase, a number of members of the corporate had positioned a vase of flowers and {a photograph} of Arnold, the dresser misplaced to COVID-19. A few of the solid and crew paused by the memorial earlier than resuming the ultimate minutes’ rush in close by dressing rooms.

The home lights dimmed, and the acquainted descending chromatic chords of the “Phantom” theme surged from the orchestra pit. Picerno danced throughout the stage as Kouatchou watched from the viewers, typically mimicking her hand gestures. The brand new Christine doll lurked within the Phantom’s lair, her face now silver.

On the last curtain name, the viewers roared with delight. Picerno ran to the entrance of the stage to take her bow, her face crumpled and shining with tears.



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