Center Boosters Can't Mask Their Enthusiasm for 'Phantom'

Sure, they saw it in London , New York and L.A.

But Henry and Renee Segerstrom pronounced the Costa Mesa production of "The Phantom of the Opera"-- which formally opened on Saturday night at Segerstrom Hall--"the greatest thrill of them all."

"It was more exciting here than anywhere else," said Henry Segerstrom--managing partner of C.J. Segerstrom & Sons (owners of South Coast Plaza)--as he mingled with the 470-strong crush attending the post-performance gala in the back lot of the Orange County Performing Arts Center. "It's the culmination of a dream. We've been waiting for this musical for a long time."

Not since its fifth anniversary in 1991 has the center seen such a social splash. Besides the Segerstroms, performing arts movers such as Thomas Nielsen, William Lyon, Timothy Strader, Carol Wilken and Al Baldwin swept along a red carpet through a swirl of fog as they entered "The Phantom Gala," a $200 per-person black-tie fest that included a buffet supper and dancing.

Amazing what you can do with a parking lot. Acres of shimmering black Astro Turf disguised the black-top. Tables skirted in jewel-tone cloths and topped with rose petals and candelabra stood where staff automobiles are usually parked. A rainbow of spotlights made guests feel like they were on stage. (Only one glitch: The yellow lights had guests looking like they had hepatitis. Smart party-goers stepped into the rose-colored spots.)

Champagne and mineral water were proffered on silver trays by "Phantom"-attired attendants. The Barry Cole Orchestra played selections from "Phantom" and dance classics.

And everywhere guests looked they saw food--Chinese food (seafood pot-stickers with lemon sauce and Peking duck crepes were huge hits); seafood (crab cakes with sauce tarragon, seafood tacos with papaya salsa) and enough sweets to keep them dancing for months (truffles, tuxedo strawberries, swan puffs, mascarpone tartlettes. Not to mention the white chocolate "Phantom" masks that graced table settings.)

Guests were disappointed that the production's stars--Grant Norman and Adrienne McEwan--were unable to attend.

But the Segerstroms were happy for the chance to chat with Sylvia Rhyne, who also plays the role of Christine. (The soft-spoken soprano--who would perform the following day--attended the late-evening event without a wrap. "I don't feel any draft," she said. "It's balmy tonight. The only thing I have to worry about are stiff, cool breezes across my neck.")

Playing the role of Christine is at once thrilling and frightening, she said. "It is so precious to be able to express myself this way. I adore singing 'Wishing,' the song Christine sings at her father's grave. I know how it touches people who have lost someone."

But it gets scary up there. "There are many physical moments where I have to be very careful," Rhyne said. "We do some very dangerous things--climbing up and down ladders to get to the bridge, for example. And it's a moving bridge. Once, my costume broke and there were beads all over the bridge surface. It was quite frightening."

People enjoy asking Rhyne about the complex relationship that the Phantom shares with his would-be bride, Christine. "That's really up to everybody to decide for themselves," she said. But she has her theories: "Christine's heart really breaks for the Phantom . . . she is very torn over him. She loves him deeply because he has touched her deeply, opened her up to her gift of singing.

"But she knows she can't be with him. . . .He has a very deranged and evil side. At the end, she sings: 'This haunted face holds no sorrow for me now; it's in your soul that the true distortion lies.' He goes crazy, hurts people. She cannot bear that."

Standing on the sidelines, making sure guests were comfortable, was gala chairwoman Shari Esayian and her husband, Harry. "There were so many wonderful themes we could have captured for tonight," she said. "At first, I wanted everybody to slide down a chute into the party, descend into the Phantom's lair. But insurance companies do not look on things like that very kindly."

Instead, she went for sophistication, created an ambience that was more sedate than 'phantom-asmagoric.' Center chairman Thomas Nielsen pronounced it "just right."

Gala patrons, who attended a pre-performance reception in the Center Room, included Susie Bollman Field and Gary Levine, Mark Johnson, Sheila and Ygal Sonenshine, Joyce and Tom Tucker and Rick and Nancy Muth.


Guilds celebrate 15th anniversary: Members of the Guilds of the Center, a center support group of more than 2,500 men and women, met at Diva restaurant on Friday to celebrate the Guilds' 15th anniversary before they attended a special performance of "The Phantom of the Opera." Since the Guilds were founded 15 years ago, members have raised $6 million on behalf of the center's operating costs. Among guests were Guilds' founder Georgia Spooner, center chairman Thomas Nielsen, center president and new guild chairwoman Susan Feldman.

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