Magnificent musical of the night

Earl Carpenter as the Phantom and Katie Hall as Christine  Pictures: Alistair Muir

The Phantom of the Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome

*****

THERE are good reasons Phantom has been playing continuously for more than 25 years and all of them are on display in this final hurrah of the touring version – is just a magnificent spectacle, a true theatrical event.

The music is familiar with the Phantom's frantic harsh organ theme perhaps one of the most recognisable in musical theatre, it has some hit songs and, in this production, some magnificent singing in what is Andrew Lloyd Webber's most operatic musical.

Earl Carpenter is a fabulous Phantom. He sings beautifully; you would be hard pushed to better his Music of the Night, and he can act; his final scene after he feels kindness for the first time is the most moving of the show.

Katie Hall as Christine Daaé has a wonderful voice in the difficult part of Christine – difficult because of the range it demands of the soprano singing it but Miss Hall managed it as if born to the role.

They were matched in the singing honours by opera singer Angela M Caesar as the touchy diva Carlotta – a Lancashire lass who can sure give a song some wellie. A powerful lady. On a clear night she can probably be heard in her native Manchester.

Opera singer Angela M Caesar as Christine's rival Carlotta in a performance of Hannibal in the accident prone Opera Populaire

And Simon Bailey showed a fine voice as Christine's would-be lover Raoul, who is trying to save her from the clutches of the Phantom. I suppose he is the hero of the tale but we all end up rooting for the Phantom, one of life's unfortunates, who, apart from his unfortunate habit of killing people, seems a decent chap underneath it all .

Raoul's trio with the Phantom and Christine is a highlight of the show.

Andy Hockley as Monsieur Firmin and Simon Green as Monsieur André are convincing as the joint managers of the Opera Populaire while Elizabeth Marsh as the ballet mistress keeps the suspense of the mysterious Phantom ticking along nicely.

To go with a big show there is a big cast, 37 in all, including a corps de ballet  - but even without a cast it is still a spectacular show.

Paul Brown's background is opera and it shows in sets which are huge, with enormous theatrical trucks silently wheeling  everything from grand opera in a Parisian opera house of the 1900s to an underground  lair (fairly) silently into position. We have larger than life cemeteries, statues, a huge backstage wall, dressing rooms and the managers office, all looking a solid as rock, and all just illusion, part of the magic of Brown's brilliant design.

How the excellent stage crew manage to get it all to fit on stage is a mystery let alone move it from theatre to theatre – but I suppose that is what 22 45-foot trailers are for.

Then there is half a tonne of iconic chandelier, which crackles and shorts its way into life as it is hoisted high above some rather worried faces in the centre stalls.

Then there are the costumes from the late Maria Björnson, who died in Paris just over 10 years ago. They are a fitting legacy, recreating the Paris and its stylised operas of the turn of the 19th century.

That is also complemented by Paule Constable's lighting, a times dramatic and at times a throwback to the days of lime light and footlights in theatres more than a century ago.

Musicals depend upon . . . well music, and Mick Potter's sound design manages both subtlety which every whispered word could be heard to sweeping drama without resorting to rock concert loud.

And behind it all was a 14-piece band, large for touring shows, under Craig Edwards, which never seemed to put a note wrong all evening and managed to give a freshness to familiar songs and tunes.

One of Paul Brown's magnificent sets for Masquerade with a giant mirror in the ceiling

It did not all run smoothly though, which was surprising at the end of a run.  In the first act when Christine snatches the mask of the Phantom she revealed the terrifying sight of . . . well Earl Carpenter really, hardly the most frightening experience.

By the second act the make up department had got their hands on him and he was suitably deformed.

As shows go this is huge and spectacular with stunning scenery and special effects including the giant chandelier high above the audience exploding and showering the audience in debris at the end of act one - all in the script I hasten to add.

Phantom had its 11,000th performance in London's West End last night – a milestone in itself, and this touring version is an exceptional piece of theatre, but somehow it never quite manages to find that tiniest of sparks that ignites the special brilliance.

It is not something than can be rehearsed, written in, or created- if it was that easy the secret would be added to every production  – it is just something that happens, a magic of theatre that give a show its own soul and Phantom never quite managed it, at least not on Press night, which was a slight disappointment.

Somehow you did not feel you were emotionally involved with the characters, you observed he love triangle rather than took sides. Perhaps the superb, remarkable technical side had detracted a little from the human tale unfolding around it. Who knows?

Don't be put off though. This is still an outstanding show, big in every conceivable way with wonderful singing and acting, music known and loved around the world and sets that are just staggering. This is West End and Broadway quality right on your doorstep.

Directed by Laurence Connor and produced by Cameron Mackintosh, Phantom runs to 04-05-13.
Roger Clarke 

 

Phantom filling night with music

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