Review by Dom O'Hanlon
04 March 2016
Now in its 30th year in London's West End, Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera is a theatrical institution and a behemoth that shows no signs of slowing down. The 'glorious original' production at the Her Majesty's Theatre may reflect a different time in terms of its period excess and scenic grandeur, that of 1980s optimism and opulence, but the production and performances continue to hold up as some of the strongest in London's commercial sector.
Based on the novel by Gaston Leroux, Lloyd Webber and Charles Hart's musical is set in the world of the Paris Opera House in the late 1800s. At its heart lies a tragic and effectively delivered beauty and the beast narrative that pitches the deformed Phantom against the beautiful Christine Daae and teaches the values of beauty lying beneath the surface.
It's remarkable to be able to see Hal Prince's epic staging first hand, and with some modern tweaks and adjustments keeping it feel vibrant and dynamic rather than existing as a museum piece marketed solely at tourists. There's much to enjoy for return visitors as well as those coming to the show for the first time, and within the context of current West End musicals you are consistently reminded that this is a unique and altogether timeless production full of charm, drama and genuine passion.
Seeing the production through contemporary eyes you can't help but feel overwhelmed at the scenography and work by designer Maria Bjornson that manages to mix traditional stage trickery with modern excess. From the beautifully ornate false proscenium to the luxurious drapes and drops, the expense is evident throughout and those hoping for a spectacular living example of the 80s 'mega-musical' will not be disappointed.
Whilst the production is effortlessly slick and runs like a well oiled motor, the dynamism is left to the cast to reinvent such well-trodden roles, and bring out new hooks in each familiar character. The production is a haunted experience in many ways, from the ghosts of performers past who pre-empt the characterisation, to the Phantom himself who appears around the auditorium to threaten the collapse of the chandelier. The current cast each bring a unique quality to their roles and it's a delight to see that even in one of London's longest running productions, slight liberties are afforded to the performers to keep it fresh.
Celinde Schoenmaker is an enchanting Christine Daae, with a fresh-faced quality matched by her crystal bell-like soprano that soars in arias such as “Think of Me” and “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again”. She explores the curiosity and vulnerability of the character throughout the first act yet displays a shrewd fierce quality in the second, as the character learns to stand up for herself and control her own fate. The chemistry between her and Phantom Scott Davies was particularly felt during “Past the Point of No Return” which had an added charm and lifted the somewhat faintly sketched character into a more substantial realm.
Nadim Naaman breaks the mould of Raoul in many ways which allowed the role to extend beyond its functionary status to something much more believable and less of a device. His strong tenor breathes new life into well-worn musical classics such as “All I Ask Of You” and he showed real command against the more comic performances from Michael Matus and Christopher Dickins as Opera managers Firmin and Andre.
It's a tightly drilled ensemble that features solid turns from the entire company who play the material with reverence and respect that shouldn't be taken for granted in such a long running show. David Cullen's orchestrations are gloriously realised by a full sounding orchestra that are effectively mixed to provide the necessary scale required by the quasi-operatic pastiche score. From the moment the iconic descending chromatic chords begin, Lloyd Webber's score grabs you and thrusts you face forward into the world of The Phantom which becomes an unforgettable delight and an undeniable pleasure from start to finish.
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