[Far too many notes for my taste]
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.