REVIEW: The Phantom of the Opera (The Civic)

Review by James Wenley

He's there, The Phantom of the Opera.

[Far too many notes for my taste]

Chris Crowe and Barbara Graham
Chris Crowe and Barbara Graham

I should declare my Phandom up-front: Andrew Lloyd Webber’s masterpiece – yes, masterpiece – is a long-standing favourite. The moment Rob Guest’s mask was ripped from his face to reveal the Phantom’s awful disfigurement is a childhood memory burned into my mind. Amici’s pro-amateur production is the third version of the show I’ve seen in Auckland. I’ve also visited Phantom of the Opera in New York, London, and… New Plymouth. I’ve seen it enough times to anticipate the conveyor-belt blocking of this ‘McMusical’, the template that has been replicated again and again over the show’s 30 year lifespan.  But again and again, it is the interpretations of the different performers, and the chance to feel the music of the night, that keeps this Phan returning. Obscurely, my favourite Phantom is Simon Pryce, the understudy who accompanied Anthony Warlow when Phantom last played here professionally at The Civic in 2008. I was shocked when he went on to become one of the new members of the Wiggles.

Is it unfair to compare this Phantom to the professional versions? Many Phantom lovers in the audience, with memories of other Opera Ghosts, will. Sure, the program is as glossy as always, but this Phantom just can’t compete with the Cameron Mackintosh produced Phantoms, nor was it ever going to. Amici productions have got this off the ground with an impressive set of funders, and by buying in the production from partners in theatres across the country who shared the costumes, sets, props, etc. These look slightly drabber, slightly less polished. Instead of Piangi mounting an elephant in rehearsals for the Hannibal Opera, he gawkily steps up onto a bench. Normally, the elephant prop is turned around to reveal stage-hands sitting inside it. The gag is the Opera Company have only spent money on what the audience will see: half an elephant. This Phantom does not even have that half. [UPDATE: I understand that as a non-replica production, certain elements from the original production (ie an Elephant) could not be replicated.]

I am willing to look past all that. But they seem determined to remind me at every key change that I’m watching an inferior product. This is the Phantom covers band, who somehow scored a gig at the same theatre the actual band had previously headlined.

We need to talk about Piangi. The character is a rotund, self-important Opera star – the Phantom even calls him out on his need to lose weight. Michael Potts has the vocal chops, but a skinny frame. No worries, you think, that’s what costumes are for. Too bad they stuck him in the most ridiculous fat suit to ever grace the Civic. He looks like, well, a man in a fat suit, with a costume made to fit someone else. Joseph Buquet, master of the flies, is donned with a terribly fake wig of shock-grey hair, but his awful pantomimic acting is worse. We were hardly bereft when Buquet left.

I close my eyes, and it sounds like Phantom. I open my eyes, and I see the stage-hands shuffling the candles purposelessly across the stage to make the Phantom’s lair in the title song. The smoke machine can’t hide that. The crashing of the chandelier – you know, the big Act One climax – is undermined by the presence of a plain-clothes stage-hand who catches it. He doesn’t even bother wearing blacks. He looks like someone who has got out of the audience and wandered onstage, only to find a chandelier hurtling towards him.

You would never get away with this on the professional stage. Cameron Mackintosh would be tightening the Punjab lasso.

Am I being petty? I don’t think so. The problem is that when the spectacle becomes a “WTF” instead of a “WOW” moment, it exposes the flaws with Phantom that the spectacle usually works overtime to hide. There are some quite deadly pacing issues as we wait for the plot to give us our next Phantom and Christine meeting.

My heart is constantly rising and falling throughout the show. I sit up when Nick Brown’s Monsieur Firmin muses on the mystery after gala night, I sink when his low-energy counterpart Andre (David Holmes) enters. I smile at June Dams’ pitch-perfect performance of Prima Donna Carlotta, but scowl at Piangi. The production is marred by the inconsistency in the level of its unpaid performers. The ensemble need to stay after curtain call and get drilled by Phantom’s tough ballet mistress Madam Giry.

But thank OG for Chris Crowe and Barbara Graham as the Phantom and Christine. Crowe has notched up performances across the country, and was also the Phantom I saw in New Plymouth. He’s terrific, giving us an interpretation of the character that is uniquely his own. His ‘Music of the Night’ is compelling: seductive with the edge of violence, he catches the notes only to release them to soar up to the Civic sky. Barbara Graham spends none of the usual time hesitating when chorus girl Christine Daae is given an opportunity for her big break: she’s straight into a confident performance of ‘Think of Me’. She continues as she started, with strength and passion, no wilting innocent. She is the type of Christine who would tell Raoul to stop being such a sap, and for Phantom to stop being so creepy, if only the script could be made to bend to her will.

Linda Shearer as Madam Giry is another refreshing take on a familiar character, adding a wry humour underneath her aloofness. Rory Nolan’s Raoul is ultimately no match for Phantom, but he brings plenty of determination and grit to the part.

I can forgive a lot if they get the ending right, and this they absolutely land. The final confrontation between Phantom, Raoul and Christine is actually up there with the best I’ve seen, as Raoul’s life, Christine’s future, and the Phantom’s redemption hangs in the balance.

Is it enough to save the production? Almost, but not quite. By then, we really were past the point of no return. The fact is, lack of an elephant’s backside beside, everything I’ve criticised in this review could have been fixed, either in casting, or with a more exacting staging eye by director Grant Meese.

Phantom fans, lower your expectations.

The Phantom of the Opera is presented by the Amici Trust and plays at The Civic until 5 March. Details see Auckland Live

SEE ALSO: Theatreview.org.nz review by Dione Joseph 

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15 Comments on REVIEW: The Phantom of the Opera (The Civic)

  1. suggest this critic not “assume” as it make an ass of him…. he assumes crew are catching the chandelier…..its cast. He assumes crew are moving the candelabra… wrong its cast.. as for the rest of the review the only thing he got right was the “ending” I wonder if this reviewer has a problem with those involved with the production?

    • Hi Tony, thank you for this information. I am happy to be corrected as to who was catching it – the major point there is that for the effect to work I shouldn’t see anyone, so there is something wrong with the timing and the light change. Same thing with the candelabra, I certainly shouldn’t be seeing them either. No problem with those behind the production – I judge what I see on stage.

      • Hello James. I have tonight had a wonderful experience watching a great show put on by new Zealanders for new Zealanders and funded by new Zealanders. The opportunity that Amici productions provides for predominantly unpaid performers is exceptional and I suggest that you might want to get in behind this and give the locals some help rather than supporting second rate overseas productions that frequent our Shores far too often. By the way, I don’t know your name as a director. Choreographer, musical director or anything actually so what gives you the right to tell the public to lower their expectations of this very affordable new Zealand production?

        • Hi Garry. I am really pleased you had a great time at the show, that is the experience I would wish for audiences of Phantom. I certainly agree it provides an opportunity for New Zealand performers to be in a Phantom show, which I’m sure would be a dream for many. On the contrary, my disappointment and criticism comes because I don’t think this production achieved the standards that New Zealanders are capable of. As to my “right”, I offer only my longevity as a critic and passion for live performance. You can learn more about my background on Theatre Scenes’ ABOUT page.

    • Hi Shaun, I had quite a fun time at the New Plymouth season. Certainly I did not attend as a critic and you inevitably come with different expectations, but I was impressed with what the New Plymouth Operatic Society achieved. Quite a strong cast including their Raoul and Christine, and of course June Dams and Chris Crowe who are also in this Auckland season were fantastic. So from New Plymouth I knew what to expect with the ‘look’ of the show for the Auckland season. I really feel Auckland Phantom was not up the standards that it should have achieved within its resources (even if we view it as an ‘amateur’ production).

  2. This production of the Phamton of the Opera was really excellent, I have seen it in Australia, New York and New Zealand and this is the best I have seen. So I do not agree with the negative comments in this review.

    • Thanks for writing Mr West. I’ve been alerted to this and this information appears on an update in the review. It’s quite an interesting restriction isn’t it?

  3. I thought this was a spectacular production! With what I imagine is a far smaller budget than that of its West End counterpart, I was thoroughly impressed. Added to this, the cost makes it a far more accessible production than touring shows that visit our shores.
    Interesting to read your comment on the chandelier catcher. I had assumed the stagehand catching the chandelier was a health and safety necessity, and I didn’t notice him till the drop as he was dressed as a cast member, in period clothing. I would have thought it ridiculous if he were dressed in black!
    Congratulations to the cast and crew involved. I hope the remainder of the shows are full, and we get more local productions of this quality in the Civic!

  4. James Wenley your inaccurate interpretation of Joseph Buquet, and others is absolute rubbish. I came on opening night and last night and it’s a brilliant production. I understand you may have not been in the right frame of mind or mood when you went but come on!

  5. I see James copping quite a bit of flack for doing a review that he was invited to go along and do! It is absolutely vital for the theatre community that everyone have a right to voice their opinion, critics especially. You are obviously welcome to disagree with him but the reviewer is in no way at fault for expressing an opinion they have of a piece of theatre that disagrees with your own. I think it’s vital that we take criticism with the maturity and professionalism that the industry requires.

    I went and saw the show last night and having never really seen PHANTOM before other than the movie when I was much younger I really quite enjoyed the majority of it. I agree with pretty much everything James talked about in this review however. Especially the chandelier. Sadly we thought the way it was caught by cast members totally ruined that moment.
    The PHANTOM was incredible.
    Overall supporting cast were pretty strong – the fella in the fat suit drove me mad the entire play as well – he looked like he was wearing his dads clothes.

    Set was pretty spectacular I thought but nothing to compare it to. But pretty awesome!

    The only thing I don’t agree with James on is the fact he referred to PHANTOM as Lloyd Webbers masterpiece?! I MUCH prefer Jesus Christ Superstar.

    I can see why so many people loved it – just be gracious in your opinion of enjoying it and don’t feel the need to justify your enjoyment by suggesting that James wasn’t in the “right mood” to see it. Criticism is hugely important to the industry, both giving and taking, both positive and negative.

  6. I would also just like to say that the only thing that concerns me about Pro-Am theatre such as this – is the fact it has quite a few professionally trained and working actors, dancers and singers working for the “love of it” instead of getting paid. In my opinion this does a disservice to the industry. In several ways:
    1. Actors, dancers, singers of this standard should be paid for their work. (I know some were). If not we are reducing our industry to a hobby which negates years of hard work, training and sacrifice most performers make.
    2. If a piece of theatre that for all intents and purposes LOOKS professional (eg is on at The Civic and all the advertising doesn’t give us reason to believe it is NOT professional) and the production turns out to be sub-par (not referencing PHANTOM in this particular scenario), then audience leave believing they have seen PROFESSIONAL theatre and that professional theatre just isn’t that good and then they might think twice about paying for it in the future.
    3. If you start getting professionals to work for free then will performers who insist on getting paid ever get work?!

    Just my two cents.

  7. Totally agree with most of this – especially the Buquet comments!!! But I still thoroughly enjoyed it. That final scene with Phantom, Raoul and Christine gets me every time – so much angst! Although I do wish that just once they would switch it up and have Christine decide to stay with the Phantom!

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