By Tracey TongSpecial to the Star
Sun., Feb. 13, 2022timer4 min. read
Whenever the lights dimmed and the curtain went up on “The Phantom of the Opera” at the Pantages Theatre, audience members were almost certain to enjoy a performance by original company member Devin Dalton. But which role the handsome and versatile actor with the dry sense of humour would play was anybody’s guess.
A swing performer – who goes onstage if another actor is unable to do so – for Toronto’s longest-running musical, Dalton could be found at the theatre either in the green room or onstage at any given performance, says his sister, Susan Dalton. “The company did eight shows a week. Some weeks he was onstage all eight shows.”
Born in Kitchener to Benjamin James Dalton, a firefighter and horticulture instructor, and Dorothy Jean Dalton (nee Sinnicks), Devin Andrew Dalton loved theatre, took ballet and tap lessons and liked to build and sew things. After learning to use the family’s turntable when he was two, he almost always had music playing.
“I can’t recall how many times we could hear Devin singing in the shower – from my front yard, some 50 to 100 feet away,” says Karl Schaefer, a lifelong friend who grew up across the street. “Naturally, we teased him about this, but it only increased the frequency. Performers!” Dalton introduced Schaefer to opera music (“at an inhumane volume”), and the two would blast Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky.
Dalton attended Northdale Elementary School, MacGregor Senior Public School and Waterloo Collegiate Institute. It was at WCI and the Waterloo Regional Gilbert and Sullivan Society that the tall, slim teen had roles in “Hello, Dolly,” “The Mikado” and “Camelot.” He remained involved in musical theatre, playing John the Baptist in a production of “Godspell,” even as he earned a biology degree from the University of Western Ontario. Although he intended to pursue dentistry or enter medical school, his passion for the arts won out, and in 1988, Dalton earned a degree in vocal music from Wilfrid Laurier University.
In 1989, before the Toronto production of “The Phantom of the Opera” went into rehearsals, Dalton auditioned at the open call at Roy Thomson Hall. Music director Jeffrey Huard, casting director Vincent Liff, director Hal Prince, choreographer Dame Gillian Lynne and producer Garth Drabinsky cast Dalton as a swing.
“I was instantly struck by Devin’s fine voice and knew that he would make a wonderful addition to the company,” says Huard. “Swings have the toughest job in the show. Devin was expected to attend every rehearsal and every performance. Last-minute illness or injury could mean very short notice for Devin to go on – sometimes even mid-show.”
As an understudy for 11 roles, Dalton loved the variety, says Susan. “(He would) watch shows to perfect his rendition of each role and try to improve as he went.”
Detail-oriented and unobtrusively observant, Dalton was well-liked by everyone in the show – all important qualities for a swing, says Huard. When KISS frontman Paul Stanley joined the cast as the Phantom, Dalton wrote him a welcome note to say how brave he thought the rock star was for going so far out of his wheelhouse, says Dalton’s cousin, Kathy Sinnicks Morningstar.
Dalton, who had relocated to Toronto to work on the show, was at the Pantages for its entire run except for time spent in Hawaii with the touring company.
After the curtain finally came down on “The Phantom of the Opera” on Oct. 31, 1999, Dalton continued working as an actor – with walk-ons in numerous movies and commercials – for the next two years. Wanting job security, he graduated from U of T’s teacher’s college, and in the second act of his career, taught at Second Street and Market Lane schools in the Toronto District School Board.
“Devin was one of those teachers where every family wanted their child to be in his class,” says Cheryl Howe, a retired principal who worked with Dalton at Second Street Middle School. She described “an atmosphere of complete and utter acceptance in his classroom. Students knew that they had a teacher who cared about them and would do everything he could to ensure their success.”
Called “a loving soul” by his “Phantom” castmate and friend Robert Meilleur, Dalton was equally compassionate and kind in his personal life. The door of his Wellesley Street apartment was always open to friends who needed a place to stay, says his friend Lee Easton.
But there was a sad side to the man who loved driving, crafting, thrifting and never showed up at someone’s home without a thoughtful gift. Having struggled since childhood, Dalton was diagnosed with depression as an adult and sought counselling for years, working through most issues before his death. Following a terminal cancer diagnosis in 2021, the lifelong riding enthusiast completed a bucket list horseback ride over the Continental Divide in the Canadian Rockies.
Always thinking of others, Dalton, even while ill, tried to ensure people he loved would be cared for after his passing. “If you needed someone to show up, Devin was there – late nights at emergency rooms, moving in the rain, (to be with) someone in the hospital about to pass away,” says Easton. “He would go out of his way to meet friends at the airport or see them off.” He was always ready, says Susan, to be “a listener and confidante,” and of course – for more than a decade – to step on stage to bring his “Phantom” characters to life. This, he did with dedication, enthusiasm and energy.
For Dalton, Huard says, “every performance was opening night.”
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