The Phantom of the Opera is a musical with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Charles Hart with additions from Richard Stilgoe. Lloyd Webber and Stilgoe also wrote the musical's book together. Based on the French novel Le Fantôme de l'Opéra by Gaston Leroux, its central plot revolves around a beautiful soprano, Christine Daaé, who becomes the obsession of a mysterious, disfigured musical genius. Opening in London's West End in 1986 and on Broadway in 1988, it has been seen by over 130 million people in 145 cities in 27 countries, and continues to play professionally in both London and New York. With the amateur rights release in Australia, I’m predicting a ‘run’ of Phantom’s similar to the saturation of Les Misérables we all experienced about 10 years ago. Unlike Les Misérables however, the sheer cost of successfully staging Phantom will certainly make it a choice of passion rather than a money maker for companies.
Opening night of any musical is always a stressful moment and opening night of Babirra’s The Phantom of the Opera was no different. Walking into the Whitehorse Theatre, I was already impressed with two massive theatre boxes having been erected on either sides of the stage, and an open stage with draped curtains and a large sack with the numbers 666 on it. The production that followed did not leave me disappointed, with some outstanding performances and amazing sets.
The opening of the show was slo, with the dialogue being stilted and lacking in energy. All of that changed with the reveal of the chandelier – beautiful, grand and very exciting to watch. At this point we jumped back in time to June 1861 with the striking Nikol McKail taking the role of Carlotta Giudicelli. McKail’s voice was lighter than I was expecting for this role, but it quickly became apparent that she would handle the role easily. The top notes were clear and seemed effortless, while her control during her cadenzas was masterful. I would have loved a little more oomph and diva attitude in her acting scenes, but overall an exceptional performance. Joining her onstage as a very skinny Ubaldo Piangi was Shanul Sharma. Sharma (previously a successful heavy metal singer) blew the audience away with his opening number. The timbre of his voice reminded me of Pavarotti and he bought a good sense of comedy to his role.
The theatre manager duo played by Brett O’Meara (Monsieur Firmin) and Cameron Waters (Monsieur André) seemed a bit of a mismatched pair. O’Meara was very over the top and seemed most of the time to be yelling. Vocally, he struggled with large parts of the score and struggled to hold his harmony lines in the group numbers. In contrast, Waters gave us a very believable and underplayed André. He sang well and his harmony lines were clear. Sarah Pascall (Madame Giry) seemed quite one dimensional. Pascall has a strong voice, but her acting lacked complexity. This was particularly evident as the show progressed. Giry should become more conflicted due to her loyalty to the Phantom, however this was not evident. The thankless role of Raoul was taken by Andrew Baker, and his training was evident. His singing was effortless with a very smooth tone that was easy to listen to. Raoul gets some of the most difficult and strange vocal lines to sing in the show, which Baker navigated with ease.
The extremely talented Georgia Wilkinson as Christine Daae’ was outstanding, all the signature notes were sung perfectly and she was able to communicate Christine’s torn nature. Vocally Paul Batey as Erik (The Phantom) was exceptional, he sang the score masterfully and overall I enjoyed his performance. I did find that there were a few melodramatic outbursts by both Wilkinson and Batey. These were made more obvious by the effortless and believability of other performers onstage or their own performance leading up to the event. Overall, the principal cast were outstanding and besides a few scenes such as Notes 1 and 2 all the musical numbers far exceeded expectations.
A big letdown for me was the ensemble. Their opening number of Hannibal was well executed, but some of their bigger numbers in Act 2 such as “Don Juan rehearsal”, “Don Juan Triumphant” and “Track Down This Murderer”, seemed under rehearsed and were quite messy. In contrast, the ballet ensembles was well rehearsed, clean and were able to perform Di Crough’s excellent choreography with precision. Musical director Phil Osborne has done an excellent job with his cast and orchestra, besides some of the ensemble numbers everything else was tight. Neil Goodwin’s direction concepts were great. He was able to find moments of comedy and lightness throughout the play, but I feel that some scenes were quite flat and unclear. The Phantom of the Opera is a realistic piece meaning the moments of melodrama broke with the style of the show. Use of a revolve allowed the show to transition exceptionally well between scenes, but at times we were left with actors frozen on stage looking out to the audience.
The next star of this show is the set (and the crew that moves it). Although it was opening night and I’m sure there was problems back stage, from the front the massive scene changes seemed to work very well. Jacob Battista’s set is beautiful, realistic and oozes money, elegance and class. The lighting by Jason Bovaird is complex and full of colour and shape. The set is lit beautifully, but this meant that often the actors were in shadows. The domes were quite tight on the actors which lead to performers moving out of their light or gesturing into darkness. Costumes were outstanding, particularly anything worn by Carlotta.
Overall Babirra’s The Phantom of the Opera is an excellent show, with some amazing performances. It’s running to the 14th of June at the Whitehorse Centre in Nunawading.