When Gaston Leroux wrote his famous novel in 1911, I wonder if he ever conceived what an astronomical journey his story would go on to have. Now a musical (often considered one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most accomplished scores) seen by over 100 million people worldwide, the longest running show on Broadway, the third longest running show in the West End, and a film with an all-star cast, The Phantom of the Opera is surely one of the most recognised and famous titles on the planet. Its 25th anniversary concert at The Royal Albert Hall played to 3 sold out audiences in 2011, and the popularity of the show does not look like it’s about to decline. Watching the show on a Friday evening in the packed 1216 seater that is Her Majesty’s Theatre, it is easy to see why it is such a phenomenal success.
You’d have had to have been living with your hands over your ears for the past 25 years in order to have not heard at least a few snippets of the score in your life, but witnessing it live, in its appropriate setting, played by a 26 strong orchestra and sung by some glorious voices, it is undeniably breathtaking. It is hauntingly romantic and powerfully dramatic. With such a wide timbre of instruments from organ to electric guitar, and a seamless fluidity of vocal styles from opera to musical theatre through to speech, it’s no wonder the score is so unique. It has been beautifully musically directed by Adam Rowe, and there are some magnificent vocal performances.
Sofia Escobar as Christine Daaé has not only a beautiful upper register but also a lovely lower tone. There is a clean throughline in her voice which is extremely satisfying to listen to. Killian Donnelly gives a powerful and robust singing performance as Raoul, and Peter Jöback’s voice as The Phantom has a sustained element of high drama. Wendy Ferguson is simply stunning. She is perfectly cast as the Palais Garnier opera house’s favourite and most popular soprano, Carlotta Giudicelli, as she has a tremendously powerful and beautiful voice to be rivaled, but as well as being an exemplary singer, her acting is genuine enough that we can enjoy the humour she provides, and at the same time feel sympathy for her.
The late Maria Björnson’s production design is as dramatic as it needs to be to complement Lloyd Webber’s score. It is more than an impressive on stage set. It blends into the whole theatre. When the famous chandelier swings forward into the audience and up to the theatre’s ceiling near the beginning, we are forcefully drawn into the theatrical world of the Palais Garnier. It is an extremely smoothly manipulated set, and often hard to see how it changes from an opera house into a romantic and almost sacred candlelit lake beneath the venue. This design really does capture the magic of theatre.
The production is undoubtedly polished, professional and slick, but occasionally perhaps just a little too easily portrayed. It is amazing to see such apparently effortless vocal performances from truly gifted singers, yet at times the acting seems ever so slightly mathematical, almost as if the cast are joining the dots. It is easy to see how, after however many performances of the same show, it becomes more natural in a performer’s body - there is less adrenaline required. To maintain the passion in every second of a performance, an actor must fully immerse in their character’s emotional journey. This is no mean feat, especially after having re-lived a performance so many times, so perhaps the cast need to endeavour to rediscover why the characters are so special, what makes them take these emotional journeys, and find fresh life in their portrayals. This is so easy for me to say, but so incredibly difficult to do. I have no less respect for the performers, and this is only a small criticism of the odd moments throughout this wonderful production.
Original direction by Harold Prince and musical staging and choreography by Gillian Lynne are clean, clear and strong, kept firmly in this state by resident director Sam Hiller and resident choreographer Lynn Jezzard. The whole team behind this production, including lyricists Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe, as well as producer Cameron Mackintosh, should be (and I’m sure are) extremely proud of this superb production. It is an enchanting evening at the theatre.