MORAGA -- You could wrap your arms around Aunt Josie's fruitcake and put on the pounds while watching "It's a Wonderful Life" for the 20th time, or you can visit New York City with a phantom tour guide and help save the lives and health of children from the Bay Area and all over the world.

Option two would usually cost a fortune, but not this year.

At Moraga's New Rheem Theatre on Dec. 21, the golden ticket -- priced at $50 for general admission -- buys passage to a glorious, song-filled expedition with all proceeds going to Children's Hospital and Research Center Oakland.

Transportation to the Big Apple comes courtesy of the (for years) longest running Phantom of the Opera, Franc D'Ambrosio, and Leslie Noel, the founder of sponsoring Peter Pan Foundation, based in Lafayette.

D'Ambrosio is the Bronx-born Broadway trophy whose six-year star turn in Andrew Lloyd Webber's insanely popular production was bookended by singing the Academy Award-winning theme song from "The Godfather III" and a 12-month national tour starring in Barry Manilow's "Copacabana."

Noel met D'Ambrosio for the first time in the 1990s.

"I attended a special event in San Francisco to meet the (Phantom of the Opera) cast," Noel recalls. "After the show, Franc asked me to sing for him on the spot."

When she sang, D'Ambrosio wasn't the only person listening, she soon discovered. Lorenzo Malfati, Luciano Pavarotti's teacher, invited her to come to Italy to study with him when she turned 18.


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Life -- or rather, Guillian-Barre syndrome, a rare nervous system disorder -- hit then 17-year old Noel and when she recovered, changed the course of her life. Her love of opera pivoted to musical theater and her triumphant recovery rotated her internal compass to annual musical productions benefiting sick children.

The second time she and D'Ambrosio met, tragedy and kismet coincided: Noel was the opening act for his Broadway touring show the same day she sang at the funeral of Acalanes High School student Steffen Ryge, the "Peter Pan" in Noel's first musical fundraising production, "Wish Upon a Star."

The Peter Pan Foundation provides children with a safe and nurturing environment to discover and develop their creative talents, and teaches giving.

Recently, Noel and D'Ambrosio again crossed paths and the story of the foundation's phenomenal success touched D'Ambrosio's heart. He offered to donate a one-night show to benefit the Peter Pan Foundation -- and Bay Area audiences savvy enough to snare a ride to his "Christmas in New York."

"Leslie's heart is absolutely in the right place," D'Ambrosio says, from a stop on his hectic December tour. "She's giving back to the community and I want to support that."

One of the greatest rewards of his amazing stint as Phantom was not solely the chance to hone his craft, he insists, but to give back through Make a Wish Foundation and AIDS research benefits that grossed over $1 million.

After "Phantom", D'Ambrosio told his agent he didn't want to be typecast.

"My next job was a song-and-dance man," he says. "To prepare, Manilow and I spent five weeks in a studio with Manilow performing, me watching. He taught me how to be personal, how to break that fourth wall and relate directly to the audience."

D'Ambrosio's formidable vocal technique was formed and refined in part by studying under Pavarotti.

"I watched him while he was putting 'Othello' into his repertoire. I saw how he rehearsed, worked with his pianist, listened to his recordings that weren't yet released. He'd ask me, 'What do you think about that? Should the orchestra come out more here?' He was very conscientious."

From Pavarotti and Manilow, D'Ambrosio learned to offer himself a balance. Great musicians are born of practice ("Those 10,000 hours really count," he laughs), but professional and personal experiences must be given equal value.

He takes that life lesson into the many lectures and master classes filling his impressive itinerary.

"I stress to students and young professionals alike that they need to solidify their vocal technique and use lyrics to serve the expression of a piece," he says, "but a balanced life is also vital to staying fresh."

Career transitions give second wind to an artist and he says that stepping away from Broadway shows to pursue a solo track was a breeze.

"A recording label put together a touring show and said I'd get maybe 10 shows. That first year, we booked 60, the next, 90 --t hen it just started snowballing."

At the Rheem, "Christmas in New York" will start at Macy's, with a child's view of the holiday season. From there, it's up Broadway for musical blockbuster hits, dash through Lincoln Center and a Nutcracker Suite, soar into Central Park for an open-sleigh ride, marvel at a spectacular nativity medley at Radio City Music Hall, hum along with the Godfather theme song at Rockefeller Center, spin northward on Fifth Avenue, worship the "Panis angelicus" at Saint Patrick's Cathedral and try not to get teary-eyed during "No Place Like Home."

As a gift to the audience, the "Phantom" will return to close the show.

'Christmas in New York' -- Franc D'Ambrosio in concert with the Peter Pan Foundation
When: 6:30 p.m. Dec. 21 (appetizers/auction)
Where: New Rheem Theatre, 350 Park St., Moraga
Tickets: $50 to $500; contact http://peterpanfoundation.org/franc/