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Ventura County Star - February 9, 2006
Ventura Native Heeds Musical And Spiritual Callings
by Kim Lamb Gregory

A Ventura native will bring his Broadway interpretation of Ubaldo Piangi in "Phantom of the Opera" to Las Vegas beginning in June. Vocal tenor Larry Wayne Morbitt, who has been performing in "Phantom" on Broadway for the past 10 years, leaves the Big Apple for the Las Vegas Strip in April to begin rehearsals for a June 24 opening at The Venetian Resort. Morbitt will perform in the Las Vegas version of "Phantom" for a year before returning to New York to rejoin the Broadway cast. He also will give a special concert on April 9 at the First Assembly of God Church in Ventura.

Morbitt, 54, says he can hardly wait to be closer to home. "I'm a Westerner. I've grown to appreciate and love New Yorkers, but I just don't like this place," Morbitt said during a telephone interview from his New York apartment. "I want to see that ocean. The Channel Islands. I want to go up to the (Grant Park) cross. I love going up to Ojai and Santa Paula."

He may be homesick, but the career move he made 10 years ago resulted in his being part of the longest-running show in Broadway history. One of his greatest career climaxes was the evening of Jan. 9, when the 7,486th performance of "Phantom" shattered the record held by "Cats." Both record-breaking shows were written by Andrew Lloyd Webber, who was in the audience that night along with former Broadway "Phantom" lead Michael Crawford.

"Let me tell you how nervous I was," Morbitt said. "I was trying to decide whether I should hyperventilate or cry. My body was wanting to do both at the same time, it was so electric." Morbitt said the Jan. 9 show was perhaps the best performance the cast has ever given.

It's heady stuff, but the former Assembly of God music minister said his role on Broadway is still secondary to his principal role as a servant of God. "If the Lord called me back into the ministry tomorrow, I would do everything I could to do that," he said. Morbitt was referring to his 14-year career in Assemblies of God churches in California, Oregon, Nevada, New York and Texas - a career that kept his voice in top form for the professional work he also did in musical theaters, operas and other venues around the country. "I always had a foot in the performing world," Morbitt said. "I thought, I'll be ready if the door ever opens.' "

Ventura roots
Morbitt's love of music and spirituality evolved simultaneously as he was growing up in Ventura. He was born in Bakersfield, but relocated to Ventura as a toddler after his biological father and mother divorced and his mother, an escrow officer, married his stepfather, a men's clothing store manager. "I have a younger brother - five years younger - who was and is tone deaf. My stepfather couldn't really sing, and my real father was tone deaf as well," he said. His mother had some musical talent, but nobody could trace the genetic origins of Morbitt's big, rich voice. "My grandparents, who came from Italy, were orphans, so we don't know where it came from," he said.

Morbitt's family regularly attended a nondenominational Christian church in Ventura, so Christian values always were part of his upbringing, he said. "As a kid, when I really fell in love with Jesus Christ, I learned that the idea for me was to always see God's kingdom first," he said.

His first exposure to showbiz was his role as the rabbit in Saticoy School's production of "Alice in Wonderland." Religion and music continued to be at the center of Morbitt's life as he attended Balboa Middle School and then eventually graduated from Buena High School in Ventura. As an adult, he attended Ventura Missionary Church in Ventura, where he became good friends with the Rev. Leonard DeWitt, who since has semi-retired from the church as its pastor. "His voice is one that you could listen to forever; it's just rich and full and sort of moves you," DeWitt said.

Morbitt went on to study music education at Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma, then earned his master's degree at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. He spent the next 14 years as a music minister, but he continued to perform in musical theater and opera, too.

That Broadway stage door opened in 1993, when talent scouts heard Morbitt perform at the Des Moines Metro Opera in Iowa. They invited him to audition in Chicago for the role of Piangi in "Phantom" on Broadway. The producers seemed pleased with his audition, but it wasn't until 1995 that the call finally came asking him to join the Broadway national touring version of "Phantom" in Basel, Switzerland.

"His love of performing makes Larry a great Piangi," said Peter von Mayrhauser, the production supervisor of "Phantom" on Broadway. "That, plus a fantastic tenor voice."

About Piangi
The Piangi character is a bombastic tenor who serves as the male counterpart to the character of Carlotta, a soprano with an ego as massive as the chandelier that drops on the audience as the "Phantom" storyline crescendos. Piangi the operatic tenor may be a bit of a buffoon, but the role is extremely demanding, requiring Morbitt to hit four high C's each performance while wearing a fat suit that extends his 38-inch waist to 55 inches.

As is often the case when you combine live theater with fat suits and tracks for sliding scenery, accidents happen. "When I came out, I slung my cape, and my foot slipped on one of those tracks, and I keeled over onto my back," Morbitt said. "I'm lying on my back with this gigantic fat suit on. It was one of those deals where you're like a turtle who is upside down." Morbitt rocked back and forth and back and forth until he was finally able to get himself up on all fours just in time to start singing. He tried to keep his own face straight while ignoring cast and orchestra members whose shoulders were shaking with laughter.

Different moral values
People rarely equate bright lights and the big city with traditional Christian values, but Morbitt believes exposure to Broadway actually has strengthened his faith by allowing him to work closely with people who believe differently than he does.

"I see a lot of gay people in this business, and people with different moral values than mine," he said. "I'm one of these crazy people who believes sex belongs in marriage. I'm in an extreme minority." But rather than judge people who live differently than he does, or proselytize, Morbitt said he has learned tolerance, which he believes is at the core of Christian values.

"God created man, in my viewpoint, for fellowship and intimacy," Morbitt said. "And all of these other things are things we've made up ourselves." Morbitt said he's come close a couple of times, but he has not yet married. "I was always so busy building music departments," he said, adding: "That doesn't mean I'm not interested." He's leaving his romantic future in the same hands that continue to shape his music and his ministry.

"Wherever God leads me, whether it's inside the church walls or somewhere else, I feel like I'm still serving the Lord."