Thursday, October 6, 2011

Review: 'The Phantom of the Opera' at Albert Hall In Celebration of 25 Years in Cinemas

'Phantom' at Albert Hall (image: Alastair Muir)
Lot 666, the chandelier about to be unveiled. (image: reallyuseful)
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ was served in what could be called the ultimate production. Augmenting the original stage designs for the scope of the huge Royal Albert Hall combined with a cast of over 200 actors and musicians would guarantee this 25th anniversary event (initially presented live on Sunday) would be a full-fledged spectacle.

Few would have predicted that any musical would run 25 years in London’s West End much less Broadway (where the show will hit the same milestone in January 2013). If one would consider why the show is successful, many would agree there would be at least two reasons: The tunes that Lloyd Webber composed for ‘Phantom’ are inviting and gorgeous and now classics of the musical theatre: “Music of the Night,” “All I Ask of You,” “Think of Me,” “Masquerade” and the title song.

Secondly is the sumptuous production design by the late Maria Bjornson. No one can deny the detail and extravagance that is the show’s trademarks costumes and sets. When the music and stagecraft were combined, the effect on the audience was breathtaking. This is probably why unlike the 'Les Miserables' 25th Anniversary Concert last year, this production is staged with costumes and sets.

Of course let’s not forget the marketing smarts of producer Cameron Mackintosh who for years relied primarily on a mask and rose to advertise the production. His triumvirate of producing ‘Cats,’ ‘Les Miserables’ and ‘Phantom’ made him one of the most powerful people in the theatre.

Sierra Boggess and Ramin Karimloo (photo: Alastair Muir)
Ramin Karimloo and Sierra Boggess (photo: Alasatair Muir)
Twenty-five years since the musical premiered in London, we are all a bit older and hopefully wiser and still appreciative of the achievement and artistry of ‘The Phantom of the Opera.’ For the 25th anniversary celebration performance at Albert Hall, the creators have brought some of their best players. As the Phantom, Ramin Karimloo made headlines when he first played the role at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London. At 27 he was the youngest actor to play the role in London or New York and that he was born in Iran (but raised in Canada) added to his mystique. Karimloo’s voice was even richer at this performance than at the two shows of ‘Love Never Dies’ (Lloyd Webber’s ‘Phantom’ sequel) I attended in 2010. If Karimloo is not physically imposing as the Phantom he is a seductive and passionate one.

Sierra Boggess comes to Albert Hall via ‘Phantom – The Las Vegas Spectacular’ at the Venetian and ‘Love Never Dies’ where she appeared as Christine in the launch of both productions. Her vibrant and supple soprano glides blissfully through each note in the score. From an enchanting “Think of Me” to a dramatic “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again.” Karimloo and Boggess are electrifying in their performances.

Raoul, depending on the actor, can become a non-entity due to limited characterization. It would have been nice if Hadley Fraser had some of the rough features he displayed in his other stage roles but at least he looks pretty (someone should have rethought the eyeliner for the big screen). Sometimes the actor portraying Raoul can be wimpy with vocals to match but Hadley has a strong tenor voice and brings a confident performance. “All I Ask of You” by Hadley and Boggess remains a romantic highlight. Want to hear an excellent full-throated vocal from Hadley? Listen to his performance of the song "I'll Be There" on 'The Pirate Queen' cast recording.

The supporting players offer memorable performances as well. Wendy Ferguson firmly grasps the role of the opera diva Carlotta with a robust voice and a welcomed portrayal that is less broad keeping the character from straying too far into caricature. Ferguson is also playing the role at Her Majesty’s Theatre and is a replacement at the celebration for the ill Keira Duffy. The droll aspects of the script were left to Gareth Snook and Barry James as the opera managers Monsieur Andre and Monsieur Firmin with James particularly oily and pompous in his role.

"Masquerade" (photo: Alastair Muir)
Hadley Fraser and Sierroa Boggess (photo: Alastair Muir)
Madame Giry is a key character in the play with limited stage time and Liz Robertson in the role gives the expected stern and wise portrayal while Daisy Maywood is sweet as the young dancer Meg Giry. By the way the “Prima Donna” septet number is glorious.

Director Laurence Connor (who also helmed the International and U.S. ‘Les Miserables’ 25th Anniversary Tours) and original choreographer Gillian Lynne confidently lead the massive undertaking and large cast befitting the fabled venue. Connor is also directing a version of ‘Phantom’ that like this concert borrows elements of the original but will be newly staged for a U.K. tour starting next year.

The set design by Matt Kinley employs the originals by Bjornson and essentially expands them for the scope of Royal Albert Hall. Three levels of gilded opera boxes now flank each side of the false proscenium. The chandelier (the one in Las Vegas is still unrivaled) perched high above the audience makes a dramatic appearance from underneath a cloth to the strains of the familiar overture. It does not crash at the end of act one but goes out in a flame of fireworks.

Probably the best use of the massive Albert Hall stage is during the ‘Masquerade’ sequence where what appears to be a hundred colorfully costumed actors on not one but three grand staircases (two of which are fixed on the sides and serving as an entrance and exit for the actors and one sliding onto center stage. Unfortunately this scene and others were marred from some poor technical direction. At a few moments the cameras were not focused on the right performer at the right time and probably proved a detriment how each actor’s performance was viewed.

Barry James, Wendy Ferguson and Gareth Snook (photo: Alastair Muir)
Red Death appears at the Masquerade ball (photo: Alastair Muir)
One of the new and most unusual aspects of the presentation was the use of video screens as an element of the set design. With the orchestra perched on a bridge above the rear of the stage, sliding video screens were located below them while a larger one loomed above. These were used to great effect to open up the stage to depict the cemetery where Christine visits her father’s grave; the lavish backdrops for the three mini-operas (“Hannibal,” “Il Muto,” and “Don Juan Triumphant”) within the musical; and the roof of the Paris opera house.

One lost opportunity for the evening was redeveloping the Phantom’s trap in his lair that ensnares Raoul. The lasso around his neck just doesn’t cut it. It appears the knife filled torture cage designed for the Las Vegas version is proprietary to that one production which truly imprisons Raoul could not be used here. But a variation would have been welcomed.

After the film I heard others talking that Christine’s return to the Phantom with one last glance before going back to Raoul was supposedly a hint to the sequel ‘Love Never Dies’ but it was not obvious to me. Still with the right performers such as this evening, the ending remains romantic and heartbreaking. The musical was never designed as a horror story though based on Gaston Leroux's novel.

What would a 25th anniversary celebration be without a special finale? The creators made the obligatory appearance with Lloyd Webber trying to find the right words of gratefulness for the show and the evening followed with the presentation of the original 1986 London cast. A false anticipation happened next with the introduction of Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman (the original Phantom and Christine). As much as the audience yearned for it Crawford does not sing at all. Reports indicate due to his current role in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ in the West End he was not able to rehearse for the finale. Other reports say he may have been saving his voice due to the eight-performance schedule. Either way it was a disappointment.

Ramin Karimloo (photo: Alastair Muir)
Liz Robertson and Sierra Boggess (photo: Alastair Muir)
However Brightman did sing and when the strains of the title song began four Phantoms appeared on stage to accompany her: Colm Wilkinson (who originated the role in Toronto), Anthony Warlow (Australian production), John Owen-Jones (who has played the role in London) and Swedish music star Peter Joback (who is announced to star next year in the London production). Wilkinson, Warlow and Jones are greeted to enthusiastic applause and less so for Joback who sports a thin voice that is starkly different to the soaring tenors of his co-Phantoms. Karimloo (still fully masked) joins at the end of the number.

The entire company then sing the lyrics that lead into “Music of the Night” which is then performed by the five Phantoms (once more not including Crawford). Again Joback is the weak link. A burst of fireworks round the auditorium and confetti closes the evening.

The show was presented at Royal Albert Hall in two performances on October 1st and the filmed presentation was of the third sell-out performance the next day. The production is planned for release on DVD and Blu-ray. Let’s hope that the camera issues viewed from movie screens are fixed for video.

After seeing ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ live in far flung places as Los Angeles, London, Honolulu, San Francisco, New York, Toronto and Las Vegas, the show has not lost its theatrical magic by being screened in a movie theater. The honest joy about seeing these and tonight’s production is the simple pleasure of hearing beautiful music, enjoying wonderful performances, seeing magnificent stage designs in a romantic story. No doubt seeing ‘Phantom’ again will be in my future.

This review is based on viewing the filmed presentation at Regal Cinemas Dole Cannery in Honolulu, Hawaii on October 5, 2011. Post has been updated to include additional photos.

(Of note: Steve Barton who originated the role of Raoul passed away in 2001 at the age of 47. Official reports indicate the reason was of heart failure. Mary Millar who originated the role of Madame Giry died of ovarian cancer in 1998 at the age of 62. Both actors’ roles are preserved on the original London cast recording of the show.)

Christine takes her bow after "Think of Me". The Royal Albert Hall
audience projected on the set's video screens. (photo: reallyuseful)
Sarah Brightman, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Michael Crawford, Sierra
Boggess and Ramin Karimloo (photo: David M. Benett/Getty Images)
The end of the show (photo: Alastair Muir)
Update: The U.S. release of this special staging of 'The Phantom of the Opera' on DVDBlu-ray and 2CD Set is February 7, 2012.


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