A man in a mask who goes in for extreme social distancing measures might well be an icon for modern times. He is also the central figure in The Phantom Of The Opera, one of the most successful musicals of all time and appearing in a blockbuster production recorded at the Royal Albert Hall in 2011 in celebration of the show’s 25th anniversary. Often these affairs are concert performances but here the production is the full monty with literally dozens of performers filling the stage – definitely not very 2020. At the end of the show Lloyd Webber puts in an appearance and hits the nail on the head when he says that it was one of those shows where absolutely all the elements came together to form an unparalleled whole which has seen the musical conquer London, Broadway and indeed the world.
The key element, of course, is the music which though certainly overblown in places, arguably feature the best score ALW ever wrote. The melodies are lush and memorable with passages that soar to the heavens in similar vein to the grand opera to which it pays homage. And who can hear the first six notes of the Phantom motif without a chill creeping up the spine? It is instantly recognisable in the same way the first eight notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony are, and equally as chilling. Lloyd Webber’s writing collaborators, Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe, ramp up the grand guignol/Gothic horror storyline and supply lyrics of trembling passions and high-flown emotions.
The key trio of singers in this version are all outstanding. Ramin Karimloo plays the title role with conviction and thwarted passion highlighting both the vengeful and vulnerable sides of the character. Sierra Boggess also displays a double-edged character being both determined yet defenceless. Her two big solo numbers rightfully garner huge applause and, to my mind anyway, she outperforms Sarah Brightman who appears in the extended finale. Both performers originated the roles in the less successful stage sequel, Love Never Dies, so are essentially the perfect casting. Hadley Fraser’s Raoul makes for a dashing hero yet one invested with passion and a strong singing voice. The “double acts” of Barry James and Gareth Snook as the beleaguered theatre managers and Wendy Ferguson and Wynne Evans as the downgraded opera stars bring some much needed light relief to proceedings – Evans is nowadays the opera singer in the Go Compare adverts. The rest of the cast (and there are reams of them) fill the stage with teeming life and are particularly effective in the pastiche opera of Hannibal and the second half opener Masquerade.
Both these elements are a feast for the eye as the distinctive designs (some as projected backdrops) of Maria Björnson come to the fore. As with the music, the costumes and set design are highly distinctive and being able to use the Royal Albert Hall as a venue thoroughly captures the essence of the musical. Some shows just need a really big theatre – and this is one of them. Alas, the one disappointment is the chandelier which fizzes and burns but does not crash to the ground – presumably this was unmanageable or deemed a safety hazard in the context of this particular auditorium. As someone who sat directly beneath it when I saw the original production back in 1986, I can attest to how unnerving the end of Act One actually was. However, that aside, it is pretty much a perfect rendition of the show and infinitely better than the film. Phantom is due to reopen although when is hard to say. For the devoted fans who are already missing it, this birthday celebration edition is a more than adequate substitute. And I’m glad that I could also revisit this long running and record busting show to mark exactly six months of daily online theatre reviewing. 183 consecutive days and 235 shows reviewed – perhaps I’ll start aiming at some records of my own.
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