Arts Around Town

Arts Around Town: 'The Phantom' comes alive with organist Michael Britt in the house

"The Phantom of the Opera" visits Allentown this Halloween season, with "Man of a Thousand Faces" Lon Chaney made bigger than life on the big screen. Lurking in the shadows of the night will be Michael Britt adding to the haunting as organ accompanist to this great black-and-white silent film classic come Tuesday at 7 p.m., at St. John's Lutheran Church located between Hamilton and Walnut streets in the downtown area.

Britt will perform an improvised score he composed when he plays St. John's famed Skinner pipe organ during the hour-and-a-half film engagement. The Baltimore native is most familiar with composing music for classics such as "Phantom" and remains in high demand as a silent film accompanist at regional theaters and for chapters of the American Guild of Organists and the American Theatre Organ Society. Most recently, he completed his sixth performance of "Phantom" at Princeton University.

"It's so neat to expose the organ to new audiences," Britt said, adding that when he accompanies a silent, "the focus is the film. The audience should forget that I'm there. If they do, then I'm doing well."

This will be Britt's second performance of accompanying "Phantom" at St. John's since around 2008. "It's always a thrill to be asked back," he said, describing the church's pipe organ as "a big instrument with lots of tonal resources, lots of color and sounds." He explained that back in the time of silent films, it was very expensive to hire an orchestra. But an organ provided all the resources. "The theater pipe organ was the synthesizer of the 1920s," he said.

Stephen Williams, director of music and organist at St. John's, said the "Phantom" showing is a family-oriented event for young and old alike – with or without costumes. He said he experienced "Phantom" years back at other venues with live organ accompaniment, and as director of the Arts at St. John music series, he wanted to bring that same experience to his church. Williams said he, himself, often has provided organ accompaniment to the film classic at St. John's at Halloween.

"St. John's is the perfect venue for this type of event. It's gothic and has all the ingredients," said Williams. "Michael turns the church organ into a theater organ, an orchestral organ. Like the score of a motion picture, the brilliance of an organist is to provide accompaniment to a movie. Michael steps it up by making up an orchestral score for it as well."

Williams, a graduate of Westminster Choir College and Juilliard, is recognized in the community for presenting a quality arts program featuring area choral groups, chamber music, and world-renowned organists such as Diane Bish, known as the "First Lady of the Organ" and TV host of "The Joy of Music."

Britt was appointed minister of music and organist at Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in Baltimore this past June. Prior to that, he was director of music at St. Margaret R.C. Church in Bel Air, Md., and also served as minister of music at the Shrine of the Little Flower in Baltimore.

He comes from a family of musicians (his dad was in radio orchestra, his grandfather was a theater organist). He said he was 8-years-old when he first heard the pipe organ – and it happened to be an accompaniment to a silent film. He later took the route of sacred music and the art of silent film accompaniment, studying organ and improvisation/sacred music at the Peabody Conservatory of Music. He also studied with Thomas Spacht, Donald Sutherland, John Rose and John Walker.

Britt said he was honored to give a recital on the great Cavaille-Coll organ at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris in 2009, and study organ at the Paris Conservatory with Marie-Louise Langlais. In his career as a sacred musician, he's been active in commissioning new music for organ, choir and congregation. He said he's looking forward to a November recital by Langlais at Brown Memorial, in addition to his own recital in February 2013, titled "Carmen Meets Buster Keaton!" The event is part of Brown Memorial's Tiffany Concert Series (named after the church's 11 original Tiffany stained glass windows). For that, Britt's been busy working on transcription music, or arranging an opera score for organ, and preparing to educate a new generation to the versatile instrument he's mastered so well.

Suggested donation for "The Phantom of the Opera" at St. John's is $10, which will benefit the Arts at St. John music series.

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A true princess is about to embark on Allentown, and Stagemakers at the J children's theater program is making it possible. It's Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Cinderella," Enchanted Edition, adapted for the stage and based on the 1997 teleplay which starred Brandy as Cinderella and Whitney Houston as her Fairy Godmother. The musical opens Thursday at 7 p.m., and runs through Nov. 4, at the Jewish Community Center, located at Tilghman and N. 22nd streets in west end Allentown.

The cast is comprised of children not only from the JCC but from school districts across the Lehigh Valley who range in age from 8 to 18, according to Syd Stauffer, theater director. The roles of Cinderella and the Prince are being played by Parkland's Ashleigh Albert, 15, and Nick Trotta, 14.

Music director for "Cinderella" is Rebecca Knappenberger. Choreographer is Cheryl Moritz.

In addition to full productions during the year, Stagemakers at the J holds two three-week sessions of performing arts theater camps in July at the JCC for ages 7 to 15. Classes include drama, dance, music and technical theater, with a performance at the conclusion of camp. Students also have entertained audiences at Mayfair Festival of the Arts and the Great Allentown Fair.

"Stagemakers at the J provides kids with an avenue for creativity," Stauffer said. "We want kids and families to have a good time when they come see the show, and we want them to return."

Stauffer served as stage manager for the company's first (non-musical) production of "Alice in Wonderland" back in 2010. "Cinderella" will be its seventh production, adding to a repertoire of "Beauty and the Beast Jr.," "Bye Bye Birdie," "Rapunzel" and "Fiddler on the Roof," to name some.

Stauffer said auditions will be held in mid-November for the upcoming production of "Winnie the Pooh" in January 2013. "Guys and Dolls Junior" edition will be presented in March.

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The Lehigh Valley is never in want for Broadway musicals, with so many venues offering their own quality productions. The latest to join the fall slate is "On the Town," opening Friday and running through Nov. 4, at Muhlenberg College's Empie Theatre.

This classic 1944 musical brings out the character and nostalgia of the 1940s, during World War II, as it follows the journey of three sailors – Chip, Ozzie and Gabey – on their 24-hour leave in New York. The show brings together a collaboration of ballet and jazz, with a score by Leonard Bernstein and book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Choreography was inspired by Jerome Robbins and his ballet, "Fancy Free."

"On the Town" is directed by Charles Richter, with music director Ed Bara and choreographer Karen Dearborn.

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Sad to say, but Halloween for 2012 is nearing a close. Some final events to complete the calendar include "Haunted Illusions: The Magic of David Caserta" on Saturday with two shows – 3 and 7 p.m. – at Easton's State Theatre. On Sunday at 2 p.m., Allentown kicks off its Halloween parade led by its first zombie walk. The parade begins at the Allentown Fairgrounds, with the judge's reviewing stand at 9th and Hamilton streets. (Rain date is Nov. 4). Then it's "Fright Night" at Bethlehem's Godfrey Daniels on Wednesday at 7 p.m., when members of the Lehigh Valley Storytelling Guild turn down the lights and take over the room as their spin their ghostly tales.

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