The man behind the mask

By Dionne Christian

Chris Crowe takes Dionne Christian behind the scenes of theatre production

In a mirror-glass tower high above Auckland's Queen St, at Servilles Hair Academy, the Phantom of the Opera is here - or at least Chris Crowe, the actor playing the iconic role is.

Crowe is obviously a patient man. He'll spend the next two hours being transformed from a father-of-two who juggles his passion for musical theatre with work for a luxury men's clothing chain, into a man horribly disfigured.

It means tugging on a latex bald cap to cover his hair and sitting while makeup artists Ali Brill and Donna Rae, watched by a team of students, glue on prosthetic scars, cover these with a thick layer of makeup and then wrestle on a slicked-back dark-brown wig and, finally, the Phantom's mask.

By the time Crowe completes the Auckland season of The Phantom of the Opera he'll have notched up 100 performances - and around 300 hours in the makeup chair if you include dress rehearsals and time spent removing the makeup after each performance.

"Who wouldn't want to spend this time being pampered and turned into something disgusting?" Crowe jokes.

He says removing the elaborate stage makeup and pulling off the light-as-a-feather prosthetics is often the most painful part. He doesn't mind the hours spent getting into character; it's a chance to listen to music and to run through vocal warm-ups. "It's just part of the process and no way did I ever think: I don't want to do this because of what's involved with the makeup," says Crowe, who has played the Phantom at performances in Wellington, Palmerston North and New Plymouth.

He acknowledges that he never expected to know so much about makeup or tips and hints on how to apply it and, yes, there has been the odd skin reaction or two, which has meant finding new products.

Ali Brill, left, and Donna Rae transform Chris Crowe into the Phantom with makeup and prosthetics.  Photo / Michael Craig
Ali Brill, left, and Donna Rae transform Chris Crowe into the Phantom with makeup and prosthetics. Photo / Michael Craig

"There's been nothing too tragic," he says, adding that the makeup, the prosthetics and the mask don't affect his ability to sing.

The most uncomfortable part of the process is wearing the heavy costume, complete with the Phantom's cape, under hot stage lights. Sweat can pool under the bald cap so it gushes down his neck when the cap is removed.

"It's as bad as it sounds."

Crowe first saw The Phantom of the Opera on a family trip to Sydney when he was in his early 20s, with the late New Zealand entertainer Rob Guest in the lead role. Crowe, who has been performing with community musical theatre groups since his teens, says it's considered one of the best roles a male performer can take on.

"I think every boy who can sing in tune wants to play the role," he says.

But not every boy who can sing in tune is right for the role. Director Grant Meese, who directed Crowe in the Wellington production, says the Phantom needs to have the right vocal range as well as the stature to be an imposing figure who inspires fear.

Meese says it helps that Crowe looks as if he'd be every bit as comfortable on the rugby field as on the stage.

"When we rehearse, there are sometimes 50 or so people in the rehearsal room and everyone goes deathly quiet when Chris starts, because they're paying total attention to him. There's a respect for his performance so he brings the right energy and presence to the role."

One of the most successful musicals of all time, 2016 marks 30 years since the Andrew Lloyd Webber production opened at Her Majesty's Theatre in London with Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman in the lead roles. Songs such as Music of the Night, All I Ask of You, Masquerade and the soaring title song made it an instant success helped by a macabre fascination with the story that inspired it.

The musical is based on Gaston Leroux's 1910 novel, Le Fantome de l'Opera, set at the Paris Opera House - which, according to the story, is haunted by a malevolent phantom who lurks in the rooms and tunnels hidden far below the opulent auditorium. He moves out of the shadows, though, when he falls in love with his beautiful protege, Christine.

Leroux's own story seems to have been inspired by a tale that a real skeleton was used in an 1841 production at the Paris Opera. It led to whispers that the Opera really was haunted. Those who have delved deeper into the tale say it's nothing but a modern myth with no basis in fact.

- Weekend magazine

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