2016 celebrates thirty years since The Phantom of the Opera galvanised the musical theatre tradition on the West End with Sarah Brightman and Michael Crawford in the lead roles. But few give a thought to the original novel, Le Fantome de ‘Opera, penned by Gaston Leroux in 1911. While wandering through the lower levels of the Paris Opera house Leroux reportedly found a subterranean lake, visible through iron grills. It was a site that fired his imagination.
How fitting then that in our own Civic Theatre, which opened at the height of the Depression in 1929, is disturbed by various reports of paranormal activities and bears evidence of multiple passageways and tunnels, is the very site in which Richard Stilgoe and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s gothic-horror rock musical should find itself today.
It is a story that will continue to win generations of fans. Unrequited love is an infallible recipe and the victims are the ravishingly beautiful Christine and her supernatural lover, O G the Opera Ghost. It is 1811 and the Paris Opera house is beset with unnatural disturbances, but these are not unusual for the company who have witnessed numerous ‘accidents’ as well as having had to cater to the demands of a rather particular gentleman ghost who insists on Box Five being permanently reserved at retainer of 20,000 francs per month.
After the company’s prima donna almost dies when a backdrop inexplicably comes tumbling down, the former chorus girl is given an opportunity to take centre stage – it seems she is the preferred lead for the company’s production of Hannibal. However no course of love shall run smooth and the triangle is completed when Raoul, a former childhood friend and new patron of the theatre, recognises her and immediately falls in love – much to the chagrin of Christine’s paranormal paramour.
The story then descends into the murky depths of the opera house, replete with swirling mists upon a black lake and moving candelabras flickering in ghostly light as the phantom seduces his protégé with the music of the night. Although she is allowed to return to perform, his hold continues to grow but new challenges develop. Christine must ultimately face the difficult decision of relinquishing one lover for greater love – and either way the stakes appear insurmountable.
In this New Zealand production audiences will be utterly delighted with the combined aesthetics of the production. The Phantom of the Opera is a spectacle like no other and under the direction of Grant Mees this musical masterpiece is brought to life with unrivaled talents of Chris Crowe as the Phantom and Barbara Graham as Christine.
Crowe is particularly brilliant, bringing all the tenderness of a tragi-hero and evoking superbly crafted dramatic poignancy in his performance. He deserved his standing ovation on opening night –for having demonstrated brilliant technique as a singer and bringing a depth of individuality to the role that has certainly become one of the most enviable in musical theatre history.
Graham too is the perfect Christine, vivacious and innocent, yet remarkably strong and Mees has created numerous opportunities for her to revel in the various characters she performs in the world of the opera, bringing a striking charisma to the role.
The leads are accompanied by excellent performances by Rory Nolan (Viscomte de Chagny), June Dams (Carlotta) and Linda Shearer (Madam Giry) all of whose talents soar admirably. Comedic delight is ably provided by Nick Brown (Monsieur Richard) and David Holmes (Monsieur Gilles), who are the theatre’s managers and must face the inhospitably of their resident patron. Michael Potts (Ubaldo Piangi) is a fine actor combining clowning with song in fine style. A special mention almost must be given to Catherine Cameron (Meg Giry) who often is the touchstone for the audience. Although this is a smaller role she gives plenty for us to remember.
Collectively the ensemble works well together though there is a little too much shrieking chorus girl action and occasionally some of the characters come across as a tad wooden. The ballet chorus are well synchronised and offer an extra touch to the work, a moving visual feast of the senses.
Then of course, there is the music. There is little more to say than Andrew Llyod Webber’s score is utterly captivating and redolent of an era. Even those who have not had an opportunity to watch a full length production will recognise the unmistakeable bars of ‘The Music of the Night’. Other favourites to have you humming include ‘Think of Me’, ‘All I ask of You’ and of course the titular ‘The Phantom of the Opera’.
Penny Dodd has done a fabulous job as musical director and choreographer Rosanne Sims makes excellent use of the space to bring some beautiful multi-level crafted sequences to life.
But it all happens on the stage. The production design will for many fans be a highlight of the evening thanks to the masterful hand of Allan Lees. The backdrops are stunning and far more evocative than the pyrotechnics and even the swinging chandelier which, while impressive, still tends comes across as a tad gimmicky and unfortunately detracts rather than adds to the central drama on stage.
If you have seen overseas productions of Phantom it is hard not to compare, especially as the musical rides on providing spectacle at the highest level. But where this production succeeds, and does so remarkably well, is in the quality of its talents, both on and off stage. Produced by The Amici Trust they bring us an excellent version of one of the world’s most beloved stage shows.