Saturday, 20 January 2018

The Phantom of the Opera - going strong after 30 years

Andrew Lloyd Webber - The Phantom of the Opera - Her Majesty's Theatre
Andrew Lloyd Webber - The Phantom of the Opera - Her Majesty's Theatre
Andrew Lloyd Webber The Phantom of the Opera; Amy Manford, Ben Lewis, Jeremy Taylor; Her Majesty's Theatre
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 20 2018 Star rating: 3.5
The long running musical is still in fine fettle, with a fine young cast

Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera has been running in the West End at Her Majesty's Theatre for over 30 years (the production debuted in 1986), something of a record, and the musical continues to be immensely popular. Despite knowing much of the music from the piece, I have to confess that I had never seen it and so was pleased to take the opportunity to catch a performance on Friday 19 January 2018. We saw Ben Lewis as the Phantom, Amy Manford as Christine (Manford shares the role with Kelly Mathieson, with Manford usually singing two performances per week), Jeremy Taylor as Raoul, Lara Martins as Carlotta, Siôn Lloyd as Monsieur Firmin, Philip Griffiths as Monsieur André, Jacinta Mulcahy as Madame Giry, Paul Ettore Tabone as Ubaldo and Lily Howes as Meg Giry.

Andrew Lloyd Webber: The Phantom of the Opera - Amy Manford - Her Majesty's Theatre
Andrew Lloyd Webber: The Phantom of the Opera
Amy Manford - Her Majesty's Theatre
The production was originally directed by Harold Prince with Gillian Lynne as choreographer, Mark Hedges is the resident director and Lynn Jezzard the resident choreographer, Björn Dobbelaere the musical director and Callum McLeod the assistant musical director. The designs are by the late Maria Björnson.

Considering it is over 30 years old, the production itself is in very good condition. The designs continue to look spectacular, with Björnson's evocation of the Palais Garnier imposed over the theatre's original proscenium arch, and key moments such as the grand staircase in the masquerade scene. The production is equally crisp with details still sharp, a testament to the continuing work of the production staff. The production itself is somewhat iconic, and whilst we were there we started listing the famous names who have done their stint performing in it.

That said The Phantom of the Opera is somewhat of a period piece, the synthesizer heavy orchestrations by David Cullen and Andrew Lloyd Webber give it a very particular feel and the whole idea of writing a very rock-inspired score for such an operatic subject is intriguingly non-obvious. Lloyd Webber includes three parodies of 19th century opera in the music (it is after all set in an opera company), but the musical style here is often closer to his own than to the music being parodied and the main fun comes from the productions re-creations of period performing styles. The opening scene from some cod 19th century grand opera is priceless.

Ben Lewis played the Phantom in the original Australian production of Lloyd Webber's Love Never Dies and has the measure of the iconic Phantom part. Lewis has an attractive Broadway-belt sort of voice, just right for the role bringing a thrill to the top notes and really eliciting our sympathy. Frankly, the Phantom is the most interesting role in the opera and we cannot help but understand why Christine falls in love with him and Lewis helped to create this atmosphere.

The role of Christine requires a considerable degree of agility, it is probably no coincidence that both Amy Manford and Kelly Mathieson are conservatoire trained.
Manford sang Christine's elaborate fioriture with admirable accuracy and ease, and most importantly with great charm too. She brought out the naivety of the character, and allowed us to feel Christine developing. The amount of amplification in the production is quite high (unnecessarily so), so that Manford was encouraged to sing quite lightly, she did this exquisitely but what I really appreciated were the moments when she was really allowed to open up the voice.

Frankly, Raoul is a bit of a wimp and the role is really only there to give Christine some love interest in opposition to her developing relationship with the Phantom. Jeremy Taylor did his best, singing ardently and giving us some dramatic heroics at the end, though it was the Phantom who captured our hearts.

Lara Martins and Paul Ettore Tabone as Carlotta and Ubaldo, the leading singers at the fictional opera house, have the tricky task of sending up the general operatic style whilst still singing credibly. Both proved particularly adept, and Martins account of Carlotta's coloratura flights was far more than just creditable, and Tabone showed some nice comic timing.

The supporting cast were all strong and provided the sort of character back up which the production needs. One complaint was that the details of the plot were sometimes somewhat skated over, particularly Madame Giry's interventions (a character who clearly knows more than she reveals) delivered in melodrama or recitative and simply Jacinta Mulcahy's words did not come over well enough so we had to rely on her vividly dramatic demeanour.

The piece uses a surprisingly large orchestra,  27 players,  which helps balance the synthesizer heavy sound to create something more varied.

The result is efficiently entertaining, perhaps more so thanks to Andrew Lloyd Webber's melodic gifts which keep the emotional atmosphere rather strong. The ending is strangely up in the air, and I felt it did not quite come off though clearly the production is mining the idea that we are rooting for Christine to go against convention and stay with the Phantom. The three young principals fitted into their roles beautifully, but each managed to bring a bit of themselves to the performance which helped to give the whole that sense of character which it needs.

I have to confess I found the amplification a bit trying, and would dearly love to hear this piece again but done without the excess of electronic support, with such strong young voices and a large ensemble surely something acoustic would be more satisfying and allow us to hear the voices in greater detail.

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