Hot off the heels of last years successful season of Carousel, Babirra Music Theatre open their production of Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Phantom of the Opera with a Gala performance next Saturday, the 31st of May.

Although new to the amateur theatre circuit, The Phantom of the Opera is clearly a show embedded in the culture of theatre fans worldwide, and therefore, the show is one that would present a challenge to any amateur team, whether they be creative, backstage, or the actors who bring to life the beloved characters.

The original Cameron Mackintosh production opened in 1986, and since then, has gone on to play in many different countries, covering six continents and multiple tours/revivals. With the exception of Poland, Hungary, New Zealand and the re-imagined 25th Anniversary tours of America and England, all subsequent productions have been near perfect replicas of the original, with only minor changes caused by the way an actor interprets a specific moment within a text. This “cloning” of productions is a Cameron Mackinosh trademark (implemented in his other large touring shows of Les Mis and Miss Saigon) and has gone on to influence such mega-musicals as Wicked and Jersey Boys, creating a type of money making, mass producible quality control.

This however, has completely changed with the release of the rights of Phantom to amateur groups, who do not have the funding of a Cameron Mackintosh spectacular and cannot therefore afford to replicate the production first seen in London almost 30 years ago. Most amateur groups are normally very limited by budgetary constraints, but in the case of Phantom, this may be a good thing. Although the original and replica productions have obviously stood the test of time it is wonderful to now see new thoughts and new creativity breathing life into the music that is so often a person’s first theatrical experience. Costumes, sets, staging, direction, and nearly all elements of the show are given room to breathe, and can continue to shape our understanding of musical theatre.

Theatre People spoke to the productions choreographer, Diane Crough, about her thoughts on Babirra’s production. Ms. Crough remarked that although she had not worked with the other members of the creative team in the past, she was experiencing complete cohesion amongst her peers, and said that she was incredibly excited for their show to hit the stage. Due to the show being quite large and very technical, she told me that the company was taking two days to bump in and would begin technical rehearsals very early on Tuesday morning, in order to make sure that by the time audiences fill the house, every person contributing to the show would be completely comfortable with every element of the show. Ms. Crough told me that if there was one thing that annoyed her, it was actors not looking certain of what they are doing on stage. As Phantom of the Opera is such a spectacular feat to pull off, every single person in the company is devoting themselves to the production fully in order to please their audience of newcomers and regular supporters of Babirra Music Theatre alike.

She told me that while Babirra’s Phantom is by no means a replica, it was the creative teams choice to keep many of the recognisable costumes from the original production, modified to suit Babirra’s budget and the on-stage talent. So much of the show is instantly recognisable that the team at Babirra knew that they had to pay homage to the original production and give the audience what they expected, but wanted to add their own creativity into the mix.

As such, Ms. Crough’s choreography is original, and she had many compliments to pay to her hardworking cast. She told me that for Babirra’s Phantom, it was very important to find the right blend of performers, especially considering the vocals. Because of this, many of her cast are not trained dancers, but she is astounded by the way they have inhabited their characters and after their rehearsal period are now moving incredibly well on stage.  They always showed up to rehearsals ready to learn, and continued to perfect their craft at home, especially in the case of the young performers (mostly aged in their mid teens) playing the parts of the ballerinas corps.

Ms. Crough cited the technical elements of the show as probably being the most difficult to pull off, but spoke about the loyal team of backstage people who she is completely certain will rise to the challenge, as they do for all of Babirra’s shows. She and the rest of the creative team are certain that this production will live up to the high expectations of the audience, and just as importantly, will pay respect to the original production while remaining true to their artistic decisions.

It’s a great time to be representing the instantly recognisable white mask, with the Broadway production welcoming its first ever full time African-American Phantom only two weeks ago. With this show now going so far as to become an example of social change, it is easy to see why audiences cannot get enough of the cautionary tale of the disfigured man who finds sanctuary in music. The show means so many different things to so many different people, and it is wonderful to know that The Phantom of the Opera will now be taken in by amateur theatre audiences as well as professional audiences, and its legacy will remain intact, forever there, inside our minds.

The Phantom of the Opera runs from Saturday May 31st 2014 to Saturday 14 June 2014. More info at: http://www.babirra.org.au/html/currentpro.htm

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