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Derrick Davis brings new kind of Phantom to the Opera

When “The Phantom of the Opera” returns to South Florida for seemingly the umpteenth time on March 23, there will be something new about this particular production.

Derrick Davis, who plays the title role in the musical coming to West Palm Beach for a nine-day run, is the third African American to don the mask and the first to do so in a national tour.

“I’ve taken it on as my responsibility the march forward in time and the forward progress of this,” Davis, whose parents are Panamanian, says. “That I’m standing in the doorway that has been opened to me. In this role, there has only been three. It’s mind-blowing. In theater and the arts, I feel that if a doorway has been open, then it is our responsibility to continue that and respect it.”

Robert Guillaume (“Soap,” “Benson”) became the first actor of color to play the Phantom when the show had a lengthy run in Los Angeles in 1990. Norm Lewis (“Scandal,” “All My Children”) was the first black performer to play the part on Broadway, in 2014.

“The Phantom of the Opera” first opened in London’s West End in 1986. It debuted on Broadway two years later. Based on a French novel, the show is about a plucked-from-obscurity opera singer who becomes the obsession, to the point of multiple murders, of a disfigured musical genius haunting an opera house. Though the staging, special effects and scenic design are new, what remains are the hit songs from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score, including “Think of Me,” “The Music of the Night,” “Prima Donna,” “All I Ask of You,” “Masquerade,” “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again” and “The Point of No Return.”

Here are portions of a recent interview with Davis, an opera singer who has appeared on Broadway as Mufasa and Scar in “The Lion King” and in shows such as “Dreamgirls” and “Show Boat.”

Is it true that “The Phantom of the Opera” was the first Broadway musical you ever saw as a kid?

It was. I must have been about 11 or 12 years old. I saw David Gaines as the Phantom and sat down front. My mother was so cute. She got us front-row seats. It was such a career and mind-blowing seat for me.

I read that you wrote David Gaines a fan letter and that he sent you an autographed photo. Do you still have that?

I did and, yes, it really travels with me, with my carry-on luggage in each city, because he responded with a beautiful letter and a signed photograph and a few other trinkets. Having seen the show 14 times now, to be able to step into the role, it’s a dream come true. This dream was a dream I was afraid to dream because I didn’t know it was possible.

What was the audition process like?

The role is so iconic. The audition process wasn’t anything less than thorough. I went to the initial audition. I had done a production with the casting director for [a company] in Dallas, Texas, so he contacted my agent and told him he thought I should come in. And after the first audition, I went downstairs and by the time I got to the street, I got a call back for later that day. I went back three or four more times before I started to see more and more of the creative team … like Laurence Connor, the director for this particular production. And on the final audition, I walked into the room and there was a camera crew in the room. I was kind of thrown. They said they wanted to send the footage back to London to Andrew Lloyd Webber and [producer] Cameron Mackintosh for their final approval or rejection. Thank God they approved, and here I am.

Why do you think the Phantom resonates with audiences so well? I mean, he’s a spree killer, for crying out loud.

I feel that the Phantom in Laurence Connor’s version, he’s a lot more human. I feel the character … even with the fantastical elements, the killing, the fire, the hanging and all those things, I feel that at his core he’s very similar to humanity as a whole. He deals with very, very normal things. Who doesn’t have someone in their life they want to shield from society? Who doesn’t have something that you want people to see past and see to the heart of who that person is? Who hasn’t dealt with unrequited love? When I look at the Phantom, I see a mirror being held up to who we all are. When I was researching the role, I was shocked in how much I was infusing into the character things that came out of my personal experience — very, very real experiences. It created a visceral response onstage, and I think that is what people are relating to. My Phantom is very real. Who doesn’t fly off the handle? We get mad and shoot off at the mouth. It’s just heightened for the sake of art.

What do you love about the music?

I love that the melodies of his songs are simple enough that everyone can sing them. And Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score is written in such a way, it’s catchy. I hate that word, but it is so catchy, but the orchestrations undergird them. The orchestrations are so lush and complex, and they tell the emotion of each moment so well that it makes it a perfect marriage of sound. If it were a silent film you were going to see and the melody was being played by a violin, everything would be conveyed. And that’s the thing that makes the music so timeless. It’s not created in a specific era. It’s created with specific emotions.

What scene gets to you night after night?

It’s the final layer, the last scene that the Phantom is onstage, when all of his emotion that he has fought to control and he fought to hide, he completely lays bare for everyone to see. His face is exposed, and his emotions are exposed. And everything comes out: the anger, the rage, the love, the passion. It all comes pouring out in the last, I guess it’s the last 10 minutes of the production. I collapse to the ground. I literally collapse, because there’s nothing left. And in that moment, the audience and I, we’re in that moment together.

How long did it take you to get used to wearing that mask?

It took about a whole week … about eight shows. Now, if I don’t have it on in the theater, I feel naked.

“The Phantom of the Opera” runs March 23-April 1 at Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., in West Palm Beach. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays (as well as Tuesday, March 28 and Wednesday, March 29), with 2 p.m. matinees Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays (and Wednesday, March 29). Tickets cost $31 to $103. To order, call 561-832-7469 or go to Kravis.org.

rhagwood@southflorida.com

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