North East School of the Arts Phantom of the Opera cast. Credit: Bekah McNeel / San Antonio Report

The Phantom of the Opera is here – to celebrate the 20th anniversary of North East School of the Arts (NESA). The North East ISD arts magnet on the Lee High School campus is boldly taking on the oversized musical, pitching its considerable talent resources into a landmark production that opens with a gala on Thursday, Nov. 3.

According to NESA Director Ernest Ramirez, this will be the South Texas debut of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s beloved and grandiose musical The Phantom of the Opera and the first time a regional or school theater has taken on the musical’s production since its rights became available in 2010. 

“To our knowledge there isn’t another (regional) school or community theater doing the show at this caliber,” Ramirez said.

Tickets for the performance, which runs through Nov. 13, are on sale through the NESA box office here. Ramirez expects a full house.

Not every high school theater department could or should take on something as big as Phantom. The production includes a crashing chandelier, an on-stage opera within the musical, a river of candles, and a chorus of ballet dancers.

“So few people get to be in a show like this because of the demands,” said 17-year-old Preston Perez, one of the two actors playing the Phantom.

When the school set out to create its own rendition of the show, Ramirez fully comprehended the cost and effort involved, and committed to doing the production right.

Looking through the production posters from the past 20 years, it becomes clear that the school can back up this bold choice. Its theater department has successfully produced classics like The Caucasian Chalk Circle, to Cats: The Musical, to Mary Poppins.

For this and many other reasons, NESA productions generate more excitement than your average high school musical.

North East School of the Arts Director Ernest Ramirez.
North East School of the Arts Director Ernest Ramirez. Credit: Bekah McNeel / San Antonio Report

“People who have been to a NESA production know they are in for a surprise,” Ramirez said.

While the production value might be one draw, the talent of the students is the linchpin of the shows’ appeal.

It was a happy coincidence that the school’s 20th anniversary fell on a year when it had a particularly deep talent pool, Ramirez said. The directors always consider the strength of the potential cast when choosing a musical. For this production they needed two of each lead, and found it.

NESA’s reputation allows the school to pull gifted musicians, actors, and artists from around the region. Students audition in cinema, creative writing, dance, instrumental music, musical theater, technical theater, or visual arts. The staff is made of up of professional educators who are also working artists.

The conservatory-like atmosphere takes talented students and encourages ambition and professionalism.

“Being able to grow and learn with all of NESA’s 300 other people who are artistically inclined … it’s the way a lot of people feel like they get to grow in college,” said Emily Tablizo, 17, who will play the auctioneer and is an ensemble member.

The production of Phantom has challenged the students. Andrea Varnado, 17, plays Christine; she said that at first singing the beloved music was such a thrill that she would forget to get into her character. As the production went on, the cast learned to peel back the layers of the musical so that they could bring authenticity to their characters.

NESA coaches also encouraged ensemble cast members to fully inhabit their roles so as to give the character a back story and a personality. In Phantom, which includes several shows within the show, this is particularly challenging. 

North East School of the Arts Phantom of the Opera cast acting "dramatic." Bekah McNeel / Rivard Report
North East School of the Arts Phantom of the Opera cast acting “dramatic.” Credit: Bekah McNeel / San Antonio Report

Beyond the spectacle, the students were able to get into the underlying themes that have made the show so popular since its premiere in London’s West End in 1986.

“Phantom not being treated fairly because of the way he looks – it’s a timeless story,” said Varnado.

They found that in the heightened emotional season of high school, the show was sometimes a fun escape, and sometimes offered meaningful resonance. If ever there is a season to “follow your heart,” it is one’s senior year of high school when the entire world of possibility begins to open up.

The cast members I interviewed were preparing for unified auditions in Chicago in February. Arts colleges, conservatories, and schools from around the country attend the unified auditions in search of talent. These Phantom cast members have set their sites high, aiming for The Juilliard School, Pace University, University of Michigan, and Baldwin Wallace University. They don’t assume they will get their first choice, but they are reasonably confident that their hard work will pay off.

“We’re not intimidated,” said Travis Anderson, 17, who will also be playing the Phantom.

The cast felt both honored and a little intimidated as it embarked on the journey of recreating the wildly popular production, which many in the audience will have seen on Broadway, where it holds the record for longest running musical by far, or London’s West End, where it has been in production for 30 years.   

“It’s surreal doing a show like this because it’s seen as so untouchable,” said Ashlyn Prieto, 17, who will also be playing Christine.

When the seniors found out that Phantom would be the fall musical for their senior year, they were shocked. The announcement on the back of the Playbill for their spring musical came as a surprise to all of them.

“It’s an honor!” Varnado said.

In keeping with the drama of the production, NESA is in the midst of major renovations to give the auditorium a more professional and appropriate entrance. If all goes according to schedule, the sidewalk cement will be dry just in time to welcome patrons through the new foyer on opening night.

Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.