When, 25 years ago, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s collaboration with Cameron Mackintosh on a musical version of Gaston Leroux’s novel ‘Le Fantome de l’Opera’, took the west end by storm, The Phantom of the Opera broke all box office records and re-wrote the rule book for the modern stage musical. Written as a love letter to Lloyd Webber’s then wife, leading lady Sarah Brightman, the show had the magic formula of strong, emotional storyline, a sensational rock-opera soundtrack, sumptuous costumes, spectacular scenery and breath-taking special effects – the event musical had well and truly arrived! A quarter of a century later, that production is still going strong at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Haymarket, and remains remarkably unaltered.
However, to mark this significant milestone, an entirely new production, under the skilful direction of Laurence Connor, is touring the great cities of the UK, re-invigorating the brand whilst celebrating the original. Connor, the man behind the hugely successful 2010 tour of Les Miserables, has such a keen eye for getting at the heart of a story, that he can strip away much of the established imagery and staging from these mammoth productions without losing any of the impact. The audience, many of whom have grown up with these shows and have the definitive staging ingrained in their psyche are presented with a completely new approach that is so natural that it hits like you a thunderbolt – “of course it should be done like that!”
Lloyd Webber’s sublime score remains intact of course, and of Maria Bjornson’s original designs, only her costumes survive. The new set, imaginatively designed by Paul Brown is visually stunning, centred largely on an enormous revolving drum that variously splits and turns to reveal settings from the managers’ offices, and backstage areas, to the stage of the Opera Populaire and the Phantom’s lair below. Delighting in the gothic setting, the staging is both grand and intimate at the same time; complementing the narrative without swamping it, allowing the audience to focus on the real emotional depth of the characters. Gone are the huge hydraulic ramps and vast lakes of the London production, instead steps magically appear from the sides of drum, and with Paule Constable’s dark and brooding lighting, perfectly illuminate the phantom and Christine’s descent to the darkness of his underworld.
John Owen-Jones, a veteran of the London production, is allowed to explore the depths of the Phantom’s soul and delivers a powerful performance both vocally and emotionally. Katie Hall, who incredibly failed to make it further than the boot-camp stage of BBC 1’s I’d Do Anything, but who was spotted by Andrew Lloyd Webber and immediately cast to cover the role of Christine in London, has a beautiful, unspoilt voice, and sings so assuredly that it is hard to believe the role was not written for her. Together with Simon Bailey (as Raoul), the lead characters are all more rounded and ‘real’, allowed to exploit every emotionally charged moment in the script.
Ably supported by Elizabeth Marsh (as the stern Madame Giry), Andy Hockley and Simon Green (as Monsieurs Firman and Andre), Vincent Pirillo (as the ill-fated Piangi) and the superb Angela M Caesar (as prima donna Carlotta), the entire, impressively large cast for a touring production, work tirelessly and faultlessly to maintain the spectacle and magic of the original, more than compensating for the loss of some of the traditionally elements.
Where this does not quite work, for me, is in the ‘Masquerade’ scene at the beginning of Act Two. Traditionally played on the grand staircase of the Paris Opera House, here is set in a hall of mirrors. Although beautifully lit, and probably populated by more dancers than in the original (bulked out by mannequins on the staircase), it needs some elevation to see the full impact of the costumes, or more imaginative choreography to compensate and ‘lift’ the scene – although my disappointment may perhaps be because the first half is so striking and successful in its re-imagining that the anticipation is too great and the realisation cannot possibly live up to expectations.
The 15-strong orchestra, under the energetic direction of Anthony Gabriele, does well to flesh out Lloyd Webber’s soaring melodies, which were of course written for a much larger orchestra, and only very occasionally does the sound feel a little thin.
A stunning, totally new and immensely successful reworking of Lloyd Webber’s classic, that celebrates but does not detract from the original in any way. If you love the original then there is enough of the familiar and you can rejoice in the ravishing score and heart-breaking love story. If you are new to the Phantom, then you could not hope to have a better introduction to this masterpiece of musical theatre.
The Phantom of the Opera - Bristol Hippodrome until 30 June