The Phantom Of The Opera has returned to Her Majesty’s Theatre. Having watched from the sideline as the show’s two producers bickered about the future of Hal Prince’s acclaimed production, Douglas Mayo was keen to revisit the Phantom’s Lair at Her Majesty’s Theatre, London to see what had become of the “brilliant original”.
The Phantom Of The Opera
Her Majesty’s Theatre
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During what can only be described as a year of theatrical misery, theatre fans were shocked when Cameron Mackintosh announced that The Phantom Of The Opera would not return when London’s theatres re-opened. The thirty-five year record-breaking run of this acclaimed audience favourite it seemed would end with a whimper.
Well, The Phantom Of The Opera reopened on 22 July 2021 at Her Majesty’s Theatre and I for one felt equal parts dread and hope that a show that has given me some of the richest theatrical experiences all over the world would emerge post lockdown ready to run for another thirty-five years.
So, first a bit of background. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom Of The Opera is currently the second-longest-running musical in the West End and is the longest running-musical on Broadway. Originally directed by Hal Prince (Hal also directed Evita), choreographed by Gillian Lynne (who had triumphed with Cats) and featured a set design and costume designs by Maria Bjornson. Maria was a magician who took the empty stage (Hal’s infamous black box) and created the most sumptuous of haunts in which this Phantom might care to taunt and terrorise the owners and artistes of the Opera Populaire.
It is said that The Phantom Of The Opera was a labour of love for Andrew and the lavish production caught fire in theatres around the world. With lyrics by Richard Stilgoe and a young lyricist named Charles Hart, the creative team worked their magic creating something that has transcended the decades.
Unfortunately, Hal, Maria and Gillian are no longer with us, so a new generation of creative caretakers have come on board. American director Seth Sklar-Heyn has joined Chrissie Cartwright and Matt Kingley who would recreate and adapt Gillian’s Lynne’s choreography and Maria Bjornson’s set and costume design respectively.
It was a joy to watch the new cast tackle this beloved show. Killian Donnelly’s Phantom was suitably menacing and equal parts infatuated and obsessed with his muse, Christine. For most of the show, I was hearing a completely unfamiliar voice come from Killian, a gorgeous full voice with less of the incredible rock quality we’ve come to know him for recently. Music Of The Night soared, a thing of beauty contrasted with the handsy sexual choreography that provides such an uncomfortable juxtaposition as Christine is under the Phantom’s influence. It’s a solid performance of a complex character that needs to impact an audience with minimal stage time and he succeeds.
Lucy St Louis is a breath of fresh air as Christine Daae, her voice angelic as she is terrorised and psychologically stalked by the Phantom. Lanky and with aristocratic airs with a touch of bravura, Rhys Whitfield’s Raoul verges on near perfection in the show’s love duet All I Ask Of You.
There are some notable performances from Saori Oda (Carlotta), Matt Harrop (Firmin), and Adam Linstead (Andre). It was great to see these performances tackle the vocal spaghetti that is Prima Donna. It’s a number that requires natural vocal control, acting chops and a sound engineer at the top of his game to get all of Charles Hart’s words out legibly. I’m pleased to say this was the closest I’ve seen it to perfect in many years.
Francesca Ellis maintains Mdm Giry’s rigidity and mystery. She scares the hell out of me sometimes, so creepy. I mean who goes to a masquerade ball dressed as herself!
I’m not exactly sure how he achieved it but Director Seth seems to have allowed the inherent humour and overriding drama back into the production opening up the proceedings to humour I forgot was there, with more subtle laughs coming from the audience than I can recall from past visits. It was also lovely to see Gillian’s backstage moments such as her Degas like ballerinas intact.
So what has changed? Well, Maria’s original proscenium arch is no more, replaced with a slimmed-down version that is functional, but looks too flashy. The world-famous chandelier is new with a design that seems more modern. Maria’s stunning Winged Victories that held pride of place at the top of the arch for three decades, where the Phantom would magically lower at the conclusion of All I Ask Of You no longer offer a surprise twist. Such a shame!
Many fans will know that the entire London production from day one utilised the theatre’s Victorian stage machinery with crews winding winches to lift the candles through the floor as the Phantom and Christine make the descent into his lair. It’s one of the most theatrical scenery transitions in musical theatre and thankfully it remains though I’m told now with automation. It’s a true feat that Maria’s vision remained largely intact for 35 years- that’s unheard of.
The production seemed to have delays and timing issues in the tech wizardry which can hopefully be fixed as the production is worn in. The transition from the auction to Hanibal seemed to run out of scenery as the timing of the carefully designed drapery with its huge trims seemed to move too quickly, whilst a weird looking piece of the new proscenium seemed completely lost in a void. In contrast, the downing of the chandelier seemed to stall and took quite a while to come down following the Phantom’s furious and flashy prompt. Maria’s winged victories are now replaced by an onstage Pegasus which because of the way it is manoeuvred looks a bit twee rather than breathtaking.
In every other respect, the pace of the production never drags. Watching Raoul’s leap is still as breathtaking as it ever was and the Masquerade number still an impressive Act Two opener. Mick Potter’s surround sound achieves the required ghostly misdirection and Simon Lee’s orchestra did a reasonable job of trying to create Phantom’s stunning accompaniment, but the fact remains that with 14 fewer musicians, there is a noticeable difference. As a lover of musicals, I have great respect for the artists who make up West End orchestras. As orchestra sizes dwindle as the years go by, I mourn the loss of the artists in our orchestra pits particularly this one. I will never forget the sound of Phantom’s original 27 odd piece orchestration, its impact only matched by the dynamic overture for Love Never Dies I doubt will ever be heard again live. It’s our loss!
I took a Phantom virgin with me on the night I attended and he loved the production. I have been a Phantom repeat attender for over 30 years having seen the show in London, New York, Sydney, Melbourne and Las Vegas and have happily paid for my tickets on most occasions. If you haven’t seen the show (yes that is possible) go and make up your own mind. For many, many years I have been a huge admirer of the maintenance of world-wide production standards but is less more? Phantom always worked for me because the spectacle perfectly complemented the material. But now, for me at least, the jury is still out.