With The Phantom of the Opera, Ballarat Lyric Theatre has successfully produced the most artistically and technically demanding show ever staged in the town.

Director Stephen O’Neil is to be commended for having the vision to bring all the pieces together. His direction of this challenging piece is traditional in many ways, and also incorporates some new approaches. Use of the Her Majesty’s auditorium added to the audience feeling like they were right in the performance. One scene of note, which clearly showed the hand of an experienced director, was the graveyard in Perros – O’Neil has set this heated exchange in such a way that enables the characters to relate to the focal point of Daaé’s grave, but not result in being closed off from the audience.  The ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ moment of two pops of light upstage in the immediate moments before Buquet’s untimely demise was a true flash of inspiration.

Bringing an expert hand to the execution of the music was Ian Govan. As musical director, he was in control at all times, even when guiding singers back to the downbeat when timing went slightly awry on stage. Govan has assembled a quality orchestra and he leads them flawlessly. The orchestra created a well-balanced sound at all times, never once overshadowing the vocal performances on stage.

Going hand in hand with the Govan’s contribution is the work of sound designer, Greg Ginger. The balance between the stage and the pit was spot on throughout the show, barring one moment at the end of Act Two – when Raoul, Giry and Meg are discussing the important plot point of the Punjab lasso, the dialogue was drowned out by the accompanying music. Ginger’s design for the Phantom’s ever moving voice during the marksmen scene had the desired effect of unnerving the audience.

The Ballet of the Opéra Populaire is key to the story of Phantom, and Vanessa Sheehan has beautifully thought out the choreography for the corps de ballet. The choreography for both the opening Hannibal scene and the excerpt from the Act Four ballet of “Il Muto” was appropriate to the period and very well rehearsed. The full company number of “Masquerade” combined classical dance elements with the stylized ‘Masquerade movements’, which an audience has come to expect at the top of Act Two. It was visually exciting, as the choreography showed off the talents of both the cast and the costume designer.

Andy McCalman expertly handled the vocal training of the ensemble. The full abilities of the cast were most prominently on display in ‘Masquerade’ when a gorgeous wall of finely balanced harmonies rang out into the house. McCalman’s hard work was certainly evident in the ‘Don Juan Triumphant’ rehearsal scene – a most complex passage of music, McCalman was able to have the cast handle the music with apparent ease.

A show as visually rich as Phantom must have stunning costumes and Rodney Green has designed an astounding array of pieces for the show. Two of his most memorable designs are Carlotta’s pink poodle ensemble and the Phantom’s Red Death outfit (the way that red cape hugged the shape of each step on the staircase rather than simply pool at the Phantom’s feet was more than a little mesmerizing). The look created for the patrons of the Spanish tavern in ‘Don Juan Triumphant’ had a flamenco-esque feel to it, and while it is understandable that Christine should have a dress to signal her leading lady status, her Aminta frock did not appear to fit the rest of the look of ‘show within the show’.

Special mention must go to Beau from the House of Bespoke Couture for the creation of Christine’s wedding dress. It is such a ‘wow’ piece, and certainly speaks of the love the Phantom has for her, as though he will spare no expense in making Christine his own.

In giving Phantom a space in which to play out, Josh Noble has designed a set that gives the show its expected look, while incorporating parts of Ballarat’s Her Majesty’s Theatre, a unique touch indeed – the balustrades of the ‘Masquerade’ staircase, the top most part facade of the theatre being used as the roof top setting for “All I Ask Of You”. There are some very quick and very involved scene changes in the show, and these were all carried out in absolute silence, something which is a testament to both Noble’s design and the efficiency of the backstage crew.

Noble’s set was given additional depth and dimension through the lighting design from Mystic Entertaimentz (Matthew Heenan and Scott Snowden).  When Christine is first led to the labyrinth underground by the Phantom, the perfect shadows were created, easily pulling the audience’s focus to the next entry point for the singers. The use of such shadows also enabled the Phantom to sneak to the rooftop at the end of Act One and barely be seen. In the underground, the lighting effect selected to play on top of the pool of dry ice gave a beautiful, yet eerie, appearance to the lake. The pops of light that gave a fleeting glimpse of Buquet’s last moments were not only finely placed, but also timed to perfection, something which is a credit to stage manager Damian Muller.

Critical to the story of the show is the Phantom’s facial scarring. Cathy Heenan and Martelle Hunt designed his grotesque makeup, and when combined with a wig of thinning hair, designed by Chris Angel, the Phantom’s appropriately repellent appearance is truly complete. Angel has coordinated a great many hairpieces for the show, and it was wonderful to see so many realistic wigs in one production.

The company of The Phantom of the Opera is led by a cast of very talented principal players. In the title role, Andy McCalman gives us a well-rounded portyal of a tortured soul. In the final scene of the show, he seamlessly took the character from boiling anger to bittersweet heartbreak – for all his cruelty, he still evoked pity from the audience. The focused, vibrant vocal tone McCalman gave us in the title number did not seem to carry into other songs and scenes. At the opening of “The Music of the Night”, we were treated to some lush lower tones that gave way to a falsetto which, while well placed, needed a little more control in order to give the phrase, ‘Let your soul start to soar’, the caressed finish it requires. After what must have been an intense production week, this could simply be the result of some mild vocal fatigue.

The performance of the show belongs to Molly Fry in the role of Christine Daaé – what a revelation! Fry’s voice has a beautiful purity and it flows from her with such ease. She makes sound vocal choices in accordance with the needs of the score, showing that she is as equally at home in the lower chest register of her instrument as she is heading up above the stave. For one so young (Fry is currently completing her final year of high school), she shows great dramatic commitment and is ‘present’ in every scene. She displayed real emotional vulnerability during “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again” and “Twisted every way”, making it read across the footlights and pull at the hearts of the audience. At times, Fry’s intense expression of emotion caused her vocal line to be pushed out of tune – during the ferocity of the graveyard scene, for example – something which she will, no doubt, learn to control in years to come to ensure the integrity of the music is not lost.

Making his stage debut, Shaune Davis is a delight as Raoul. His voice is a pleasure to listen to, and is well suited to the role. His Raoul is a very earnest romantic hero who has a sweet respect and affection for Christine. After the Act Two scene in the managers’ office, Davis exuded such passionate rage when declaring war upon the Phantom that it made his chemistry with his leading lady appear to be missing a little something. Given these intense feelings inside him, it would have been great to see Raoul wanting Christine more.

As the larger-than-life Carlotta, April Foster portrayed a spoilt, willful diva to a tee. The temper tantrum she threw in her “This thing does not ‘appen” speech was one of the highlights of the night. Foster’s voice projects well, evidenced by Carlotta’s performance scenes, and it has the kind of ‘cut’ that would allow her to be heard unamplified over an orchestra. However, in the more conversational moments in the office, some of that clarity was lost, making it difficult for her to be heard. Her counterpart, Ubaldo Piangi, was played by Keith McNamara, who delivered a delicious caricature of an Italian tenor. Through his use of gesture, vocal colour, and a generous dose of self-importance, McNamara brought great hilarity to the role. The physical unease of Piangi trying to clamber on to the top of the elephant was nothing short of comedy gold.

The managers of the Opéra Populaire, Monsieur André and Monsieur Firmin, are played by Gareth Grainger and Callan Lewis, respectively. Their portrayals bounced off each other so very well, bringing much needed comedy to this dark piece of theatre. When they sang together at the beginning of “Prima Donna”, their voices blended beautifully to sing as one. Kudos must go to Grainger for the courage he displayed in the wearing of his ‘Masquerade’ costume – few souls would be so brave!

Christine Vanderkley’s Madame Giry was a straight laced, well contained ballet mistress. Her interaction with Raoul after the opening of Act Two left the audience wanting to know what it was that she would not tell, such was the air of mystery and horror she gave to the moment. Meg Brandenburg has a sweet voice which matched perfectly to the girlishness that is Meg Giry, and her dancing was so enjoyable to watch, particularly in her brief pas de deux with Reuben Morgan.

The ensemble of the company capably supported the principal cast. With the exception of the male chorus vocals in “Hannibal”, they sang with strength and confidence. Mention must go to a few stand-out performances – Sheree Chevalier as the Wardrobe Mistress, Reuben Morgan as the Slave Master/ballet soloist, and Benjamin Reginato for his performance as Half-Man/Half-Woman in ‘Masquerade’.

No performance of Phantom would be a success without some technically demanding props and set pieces. Scott Snowden has clearly worked tirelessly on this production and his efforts represent a huge contribution to the show – from the monkey music box, to the ‘rehearsal piano’, and the beautiful candelabras. Lyric Theatre is indeed blessed to have him on board.

Special pyrotechnic effects have been devised by Beth Lamont to heighten various explosive points in the plot, including the infamous dropping of the chandelier. To achieve the dramatic effect of that key moment, Lyric are indebted to the generosity of Her Majesty’s Theatre. The theatre is a heritage building, and the board of Her Maj has given permission to allow the seemingly impossible. This most memorable centrepiece was fabricated by Neville Byron, automated by Al Forster from QMA, and is operated by Glenn Fisher at each performance.  Without giving the game away for audience members yet to attend, this technical feat is not likely to be replicated anywhere else, making it all the more marvellous.

Lyric’s The Phantom of the Opera is one of the most, if not the most, high calibre productions ever to be seen in Ballarat. Strong across every aspect of the production, this Phantom will be talked about for years to come. If you’re in Ballarat, you have no excuse not to head along see it. And if you’re an out-of-towner, then grab some friends and see why Ballarat theatre is well worth the road trip.

The Phantom of the Opera is playing through until Sunday March 9th. The season is booking well, so buy your tickets soon! Tickets are available through http://www.hermaj.com/buy-tickets-the-phantom-of-the-opera or by calling
03 5333 5888