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Meet the man behind the mask

THEATER: ‘PHANTOM’ TO RIVET AT RIVERSIDE

BY EDIE GROSS

THE FREE LANCE-STAR

Patrick A’Hearn had every intention of becoming a sportscaster, so during his senior year of high school, he took a public-speaking class.

His teacher was also directing the school’s production of “The Music Man” that year, and she required each of her students to audition.

At the tryout, A’Hearn, who had no theater experience, asked for a nonmusical role. Then he dutifully sang “Seventy-six Trombones,” the musical’s signature song.

“I ended up with the lead,” recalled A’Hearn, now a Broadway veteran and the associate artistic director at Riverside Center Dinner Theater in Stafford.

A’Hearn’s latest leading role will be in “Phantom,” a tale of love and loss inside the Paris Opera House. It opens at Riverside on Wednesday.

Patrick A’Hearn, a Broadway veteran and the associate artistic director at Riverside Center Dinner Theater, will play the title role in the theater’s production of “Phantom,” which opens Wednesday.

At first, he said, he was reluctant to accept the role, not because he couldn’t do it—he’s starred in “Phantom” three times and once more in the touring production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s variation, “Phantom of the Opera.”

But he prefers to direct these days, leaving the choice roles at Riverside for others. Still, General Manager Rollin E. Wehman was insistent.

“There was never any question who was going to play the lead,” said Wehman, noting that it’s a physically and vocally demanding role. “It requires the ability, more than any other role I can recall, to convey a range of emotions—of anger, of total frustration, of despair and from time to time, jubilation. He is awesome in the title role.”

Though A’Hearn, 54, acted in the Stafford theater’s productions of “The Music Man” in 2006 and “Beauty and the Beast” about a year and a half later, this will be his first time on its stage since he joined the facility’s staff in May 2010.

“Everybody is in for a treat, a big treat,” said A’Hearn’s sister, Maureen Dodd, who had no idea her brother had theatrical talent until she saw him in his high school musical.

“When he had to sing, it was like unbelievable that that voice came from my brother,” the Spotsylvania woman recalled. “He wasn’t one to sing at home or in the shower. It was so amazing. My mom, dad and myself, our jaws just dropped.”

CAREER TAKES OFF

Despite that breakout performance, A’Hearn needed a little more nudging before he decided to pursue theater in earnest.

One of his professors at Syracuse University urged him to take voice lessons to help his broadcasting career. That led to summer stock performances at regional theaters.

“Dabbling as a hobby started becoming something more,” said A’Hearn, who earned a degree in broadcasting.

By the time he graduated, A’Hearn’s parents had moved from upstate New York to Spotsylvania. He still wanted to be an anchor, but during a visit with his parents he auditioned for a role in “My Fair Lady” at Harlequin Dinner Theatre in Rockville, Md.

He landed the part and was then courted for a role in the 1980 pre-Broadway production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” at Ford’s Theatre in Washington.

That show soon headed to Broadway, and A’Hearn went with it.

By then, his career path was clear. He appeared in the original Broadway production of “Les Misérables” as well as the national touring companies of “Joseph,” “The King and I,” “Phantom of the Opera” and “Chicago.”

A’Hearn, who has created two CDs, also sang with classical pianist Byron Janis and toured with composer Marvin Hamlisch. Most recently, he returned to Ford’s Theatre to perform in “1776.”

His parents, John and Lucille, traveled regularly to his shows, but they also enjoyed productions at Riverside, which opened in 1998.

His mother saw the opening production of “Oklahoma!” and called A’Hearn, who was on tour with “Chicago” at the time, to rave about it.

“I thought, ‘Yeah right. What kind of theater can they have in Fredericksburg?’” A’Hearn recalled.

It’s not an uncommon reaction. M.C. Moncure, the head of tourism for Stafford County, said many hear the phrase “dinner theater” and think of a 1950s-style show. But Riverside, she said, is not your grandmother’s dinner theater.

“When people think of traditional dinner theater and come here, they say, ‘Wow!’” she said. “If I could wave a magic wand and get one message about Riverside out there, it’d be just go the first time.”

A’Hearn’s mother passed away in 1999 and his father a year later. That’s about the time A’Hearn dropped in to Riverside to meet Wehman and find out what all the fuss was about.

ALWAYS RAISING THE BAR

Wehman persuaded A’Hearn to give some concerts at Riverside, singing show tunes from popular Broadway musicals.

He later cast A’Hearn in “The Music Man” and “Beauty and the Beast.” And when A’Hearn expressed an interest in directing, Wehman invited him to guest-direct “42nd Street” and “Evita.”

For Riverside’s 12th season, Wehman expanded the offerings from four shows to six. The effort required an associate artistic director, and Wehman recruited A’Hearn, who was still living in New York.

“His character is impeccable, his integrity unquestioned. You can find a lot of people with talent, but finding that rare combination of character, integrity and talent? Patrick’s got all three,” said Wehman, who said it doesn’t hurt that he knows everyone in the industry. “Your reputation precedes you, and he’s got a stellar reputation.”

Since joining the staff, A’Hearn has directed such popular shows as “Chicago,” “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” and “Dreamgirls,” a musical that earned positive reviews as far away as New York. He scored a coup last year when he directed “Hello, Dolly!” and recruited Sally Struthers for the title role.

At the time, Struthers, who had only 11 days to rehearse with the cast, gushed about A’Hearn’s efforts to make her feel at home.

“Any ego I needed boosted when I was feeling doubtful, he was there with pompoms,” she said.

That season, Riverside set records for attendance and revenues.

“He’s done a whole lot to answer the call of championing the arts,” said Moncure. “He sees not only what Riverside is but what it can be.”

One day, A’Hearn said, he would like to incorporate live orchestras at Riverside, as much to support musicians as to engage the audience.

And next season, Riverside has a blockbuster in store for its fans. The theater can’t release the name of this epic production just yet, but it takes place in 19th-century France and rhymes with “Hey Liz.”

It’s all part of Riverside’s plans to keep upping the bar, said A’Hearn.

“It’s just as it is with an actor—you’re only as good as your last show,” he said.

‘TREMENDOUS’ SHOW

Speaking of which “Phantom” is the product of composer Maury Yeston and playwright Arthur Kopit, and like Webber’s popular musical, it’s based on the novel “The Phantom of the Opera.”

While Webber’s piece has dominated Broadway, “Phantom”—which was actually in the works first—has been wildly popular with audiences at regional theaters as well as reviewers, who say it fleshes out the Phantom’s heartbreaking back story a bit more than Webber’s show does.

“You get to see more of his innards,” said A’Hearn, who last played Phantom about 14 years ago. “As an actor, it’s amazing to pull on life’s experiences, life’s ups and downs, and then revisit a character you’ve played before and see what more you bring to it.

“Something about this character allows one to tap into their dark side, to release their emotions,” he added. “If you can tap in and make it real, it makes it easier for the audience to release.”

The Phantom lives in the catacombs beneath the Paris Opera House, thriving on the music performed on the stage above him. His deformed face hidden behind a mask, he agrees to train the beautiful Christine as an opera singer, and he ultimately falls in love with her. But “Phantom” isn’t a fairy tale, and not everyone gets to live happily ever after.

Quinn Vogt–Welch, a classically trained singer and actress who lives in New York, plays Christine. Andrea Kahane, a Riverside veteran who locals may remember as the hysterical Ernestina Money in “Hello, Dolly!” is Carlotta, the diva wife of the opera house’s owner. The show also features Nathaniel Mason as Count Philippe and Bob Beard as Gérard Carrière, who has a special relationship to the Phantom.

The show is directed by Patti D’Beck, a theater professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and a veteran of numerous Broadway musicals.

Aside from the stellar cast, the show features quite a few “wow factor” items, including a hydraulic platform that causes the Phantom to rise from the bowels of the opera house to the stage, said Wehman.

“There will be quite a number of ghostly and supernatural effects that will really add to the appeal,” he said. “This thing ought to be tremendous.”

A’Hearn has mixed emotions about his starring role. He’s looking forward to the experience, but he wishes his parents were here to see it.

“It’s very bittersweet for me. I went to New York. My Broadway career started. I think to myself, here I am in Fredericksburg now. As busy as I am, what I wouldn’t give to be able to pick up the phone and call my mom and dad and say, ‘Let’s go get a cup of coffee,’” he said.

Though he still maintains an apartment in New York, he recently bought a home in Fredericksburg to be closer to his sister and her family.

He said he loves directing at Riverside, particularly when he casts someone for the first time and their family shows up to support them—just like his did.

“It’s special for me when I see people come through the door and you have those moments where their mom and dad come. I know what that feels like,” he said. “It makes me feel like my mom and dad are still here.”

WANT TO GO?

“Phantom” débuts at Riverside Center Dinner Theater on Wednesday, Aug. 1, and runs through Oct. 14. Broadway veteran Patrick A’Hearn, who has been Riverside’s associate artistic director since May 2010, will play the lead.

The theater hosts Wednesday and Sunday matinées as well as evening performances on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Tickets cost $40 to $60 and can include a meal.

For more information, visit riverside dt.com or call 540/370-4300.

Edie Gross: 540/374-5428

egross@freelancestar.com

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