Superbly cast and ingeniously staged, the luxurious new production of The Phantom of the Opera is peak musical theatre at its entertaining best.
Undoubtedly one of Melbourne’s all-time favourite musicals, The Phantom of the Opera returns afresh for its third season in this splendiferous and thrillifying new staging, which has toured the UK and USA since 2012. Insightfully directed by Laurence Connor and sturdily choreographed by Scott Ambler, the production retains costume designs by Maria Björnson while replacing the luxuriant sweeping curtains of Björnson’s set designs with large scale constructed sets by Paul Brown.
It is difficult to overstate the cultural impact of The Phantom of the Opera following its 1986 premiere at London’s Theatre Royal, Haymarket (where it still plays today). Grand showman composer Andrew Lloyd Webber oversaw the release pop singles, complete with video clips, as the double album swept the world’s music charts. The 1990 Australian premiere was so eagerly anticipated that ticket prices rose for the first time to a princely $50, with stars Anthony Warlow and Marina Prior swiftly becoming household names.
Connor’s direction sidesteps camp Victorian melodrama to present grounded, clarion storytelling in which the emotional stakes are kept engrossingly high. There is no shying from the monstrosity of the Phantom, adding to the complexity of Christine’s hypnotic fascination with him.
While the London production of The Phantom of The Opera has suffered the cost-cutting measure of its orchestra being reduced to 14, this production has the luxury of the original full set of 27 musicians, drawn from the highly experienced ranks of Orchestra Victoria. Benefitting from the decades of experience of musical supervisor Guy Simpson, Webber’s music is heard at its best, with musical director Anthony Barnhill presiding over a lush instrumental and vocal performance. Sound is wonderfully immersive and crystal clear, with the sound design of Mick Potter skilfully overseen locally by Nic Gray and Shelly Lee.
Even the most stubborn of purists will be sure to marvel at the achievements of the new design. No specific spoilers here, but it is safe to mention that the giddily perilous descent to the Phantom’s lair is a highlight. The theatre managers’ office is a characterful addition, the gilded false proscenium and boxes glide elegantly into view, and the over-sized statues of the Paris Opera House roof provide the ideal vantage point for the Phantom’s declaration of war.
If there is one loss in this version, it is the collaboration between Björnson and original choreographer Gillian Lynne for act two opener “Masquerade,” which previously featured an increasingly terrified Christine seeing the Phantom and his icons amidst the costumed guests. Although glossily staged, in Ambler’s hands “Masquerade” is now simply a generic musical theatre number.
His London Phantom year cut short, and having waited another year for this season, Josh Piterman makes a stunning hometown debut in this most iconic of roles. A stellar singing actor, Piterman embraces the darkness to craft a humanistic portrait of a desperate man tortured by his own existence. In superb voice, Piterman imbues his vocal performance with aching expression; in particular, mega power ballad “The Music of the Night” soars to new heights, with fresh life breathed into the well worn lyrics.
Amy Manford delights as Christine, singing the role with a gorgeous full bodied soprano and committing wholeheartedly to the reality of Christine’s horror. Alone on stage, Manford has the audience in her palm for act two reflection “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again,” and her coloratura phrases at the conclusion of “Think of Me” vividly display the operatic aspect of her talent.
A charismatic actor and luxurious tenor, Blake Bowden elevates Raoul well above the potential blandness of a traditional musical theatre hero. Crystallising the chemistry between Manford and Bowden, “All I Ask of You” is a swoon-worthy pleasure.
A key success to this season is the similarity in age and stature of the Phantom and Raoul. With affecting clarity, this aspect highlights the agony of the Phantom in wishing he could be in Raoul’s place with Christine. Would that he could not have pursued this desire in such a bloodthirsty manner.
The supporting leads are impeccably cast. David Whitney and Andy Morton bring endearing exasperation to new theatre owners Messieurs Firmin and André. Giuseppina Grech portrays grand diva Carlotta as a loveable rogue, with co-star Paul Tabone making gentle comedy of the pompous arrogance of fading tenor Piangi. Grech and Tabone both handle the operatic elements of their roles with vocal flair and knowing wit.
Jayde Westaby is suitably stern and mysterious as forbidding ballet mistress Madame Giry. Mietta White makes a highly auspicious mainstage debut as dear Meg, her skill for dance as graceful as her vocals are sweet.
The very definition of “must-see musical theatre,” The Phantom of the Opera is a very welcome gift to the musical lovers of Melbourne. Prepare to fall under the Phantom’s spell all over again.
Photos: Daniel Boud