August 17, 2019

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Phantom power

Iconic role allows actor to pass on the passion that inspired him to enter theatre

Supplied</p><p>Derrick Davis Davis is the first black actor to play the Phantom in a touring production.</p></p>

Supplied

Derrick Davis Davis is the first black actor to play the Phantom in a touring production.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/8/2017 (728 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

VANCOUVER — A single electric moment in a New York City theatre is the reason Derrick Davis is an actor.

It was the first Broadway show he attended when he was an impressionable 12-year-old.

It was a musical. It was Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera.

“I begged and begged to go because I’d never been to the theatre before,” Davis says in an interview with the Free Press during the Vancouver phase of the touring production last month.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/8/2017 (728 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

VANCOUVER — A single electric moment in a New York City theatre is the reason Derrick Davis is an actor.

It was the first Broadway show he attended when he was an impressionable 12-year-old.

It was a musical. It was Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera.

"I begged and begged to go because I’d never been to the theatre before," Davis says in an interview with the Free Press during the Vancouver phase of the touring production last month.

The musical is a lavish retelling of Gaston Leroux’s twisted love triangle encompassing upcoming opera star Christine Daae, her childhood playmate Raoul, and the brilliant, enigmatic "Phantom" who haunts the Paris Opera House in the early 20th century. Once considered a horror icon, Webber transformed the character into a musical icon.

Derrick Davis and Eva Tavares. (Supplied)

Derrick Davis and Eva Tavares. (Supplied)

"My mother knew that this was my favourite musical because I’d listen to it constantly," Davis says. "So she got us front-row tickets."

He was overcome, he says.

"The experience was so intense. It was the transformative power of musical theatre to bring you into a space that they’re creating and make you forget you’re not literally there," he recalls. "Everyone else in the audience disappeared. I felt that it was me and the performers, partly because I was so close to the stage.

"You could see the performers’ expressions," he says. "There was one moment in (Act II opening scene) Masquerade when one of the ensemble members came downstage and she was in the monkey costume. She looked down at me and she smiled, and then she went about her business.

"Sold me for life! ‘That’s what I’m going to do!’ " Davis says. "It was a done deal."

It was indeed. Raised in Long Island, N.Y., to Panamanian-born parents, the actor trained and worked and eventually wound up on Broadway himself, understudying both the noble lion Mufasa and his evil brother Scar in the Broadway production of The Lion King.

But did he ever believe he would play the Phantom when he first saw that Broadway production?

"I sure didn’t," he says.


Davis is the first black actor to play the Phantom in a touring production (on Broadway he was preceded by Norm Lewis and Robert Guillaume in Los Angeles). While he was training, it was his mother who confidently told him he would one day have a crack at the role that drew him to theatre in the first place.

"She’s a very spiritual woman and she’s good at doing things like that," Davis says. "She said it, and it was prior to me knowing that Robert Guillaume had played the role and prior to Norm Lewis playing the role.

"It wasn’t something on my radar and I continued on with my life. And then, as time progressed, I said, ‘Maybe I could do it.’"

A tendency to colour-blind casting, coming to a kind of fruition with the recent Broadway hit Hamilton, undoubtedly paved the way for actors like Davis to get a shot at this plum role, says the show’s associate director, Seth Sklar-Heyn.

"It was exciting in the casting process, because when we put out a breakdown, there’s no description as to race," Sklar-Heyn says. "Yet for 30 years, there’s always been an assumption the character will be played a certain way and by a certain type of person.

"And what’s been lovely over the past few years, we’ve just been freed up, saying, ‘People know the story, people want the character, and as long as we deliver that honestly, it doesn’t matter what he looks like within that story.’ So that works to our advantage.

"I love it, upending the expectations of audiences, especially in certain places in America where you feel the divide is much more prevalent," Sklar-Heyn says. "I love that we were able to play in places like Atlanta, where there’s a huge African-American community, and they’re saying, ‘We’re here for you too.’"

Atlanta provided Davis with another electric moment, this time as a performer.

"In Atlanta, there were so many people of colour," he says. "Opera isn’t historically something that the communities of colour are big on. It just isn’t.

"So to see audience members from all walks of life and all colours be in these audiences, it was so amazing," he says.

While in Atlanta, Davis recalls, a woman brought her teenage son around to the stage door.

"She was wailing," he remembers. "When I came out the door, she stood her son in front of her, grabbed him by the shoulders, pointed at me and said: ‘Look at him! Now you see you can do anything!’

"It gives me chills just thinking about what power we have as creators of art to effect change in someone’s life," Davis says. "I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for this show. And maybe that child will be somewhere amazing because of what he saw."

 

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @FreepKing

Randall King

Randall King
Reporter

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

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History

Updated on Monday, August 21, 2017 at 11:57 AM CDT: Updates photo.

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