Any show which runs for more than a quarter of a century to critical acclaim can’t just be down to luck. And judging by the reaction of the Milton Keynes Theatre audience as they left the auditorium on Tuesday evening, Cameron Mackintosh’s spectacular new production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s best-loved musical masterpiece looks set for another successful 25 years!
I first saw The Phantom of the Opera over two decades ago and just days after Michael Crawford left the London-based production at Her Majesty’s Theatre in the Haymarket to launch it on Broadway.
Thinking I would be disappointed at not seeing Michael – although with his mask and make-up it could have been anyone! – I was stunned by Dave Willetts’ magnificent performance, later realising that I had been thrilled by his portrail of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables when seeing that blockbuster for a second time following the departure of the great Irishs troubadour, Colm Wilkinson.
With Gaston Leroux’s novel worked and reworked as a musical by Lloyd Webber and Richard Stillgoe (Cats, Starlight Express) and with additional lyrics provided by Charles Hart (Aspects of Love), the latest version produced by Sir Cameron Mackintosh has Earl Carpenter in the Phantom role.
His powerful voice is easily a match for those who have gone before while tv’s ‘I’d Do Anything’ contestant Katie Hall take on the role of Christine Daae – and she was a real breathe of fresh air.
Taking on the mantle made famous by Lloyd Webber’s second wife Sarah Brightman, Hall is both stunningly beautiful and has a wonderful quality to her voice and my only question is: how did the good Lord (Lloyd Webber) manage to pass her over for the role of Nancy in Lionel Bart’s classic Oliver?
The ‘love interest’ comes in the shape of Simon Bailey who plays Raoul, the Vicomte de Chagny, whom Christine finally leaves the Phantom for.
He has a fine tenor voice and during the interchange of lyrics in the powerful ‘Prima Donna’, he is heard above the high-pitched soprano of opera diva Carlotta Giudicelli (Angela M Carter)... and that really took some doing!
Of the other key players, the tall and elegent Elizabeth Marsh is superb as Madame Giry (she’s basically the Phantom protector) while her daughter Meg Giry (played by Hannah Cadec) also shines, especially in the ‘Angel of Music’ duet with Christine.
Others of note are the Paris Opera House’s ‘new’ joint owners Monsieur Firmon (Andy Hockley) and Monsiur Andre (Simon Green) while the opening scene brings us forward to 1911 and the auction of items from the theatre which has fallen into disrepair.
The cymbal playing monkey (which feature strongly in Joel Schumacher’s 2004 film) is the final item on sale and is bought by Raoul, while what is a ‘show within a show’ opens with the auction of a poster for ‘Hannibal’.
It then flashes back to years before with ageing opera star Ubaldo Piangi (Vincent Pirillo) and Caroltta surrounded by a colourful dance ensemble in a slickly choerographed routine during an often disrupted rehearsal.
With Carlotta storming off dive-like, the new owners feel they have to cancel the show until Madame Giry and Meg suggest that dancer Christine could take over the lead role as they secretly know that Christine has been specially coached by the Phantom.
Christine and Meg sing the haunting ‘Angel of Music’, while the Phantom finally appears in a dressing room mirror.
The whole set and staging is incredibly ambitious. There’s a black gondola which floats around the depths of the opera house’s foundations on a ‘lake’ of dry ice while a stairway pops out of the walls as Christine and the Phantom descends into the catacombs.
Quite how they have managed to get so much onto a stage at one time is baffling. The huge statues, revolving walls, theatre boxes, owner’s lounge and dressing rooms, it really is a masterstroke by the show’s design and technical team.
Many modern musicals get off to a flying start while Phantom has a more sombre pace. However this latest touring version is refreshingly different and you begin to believing that anything is possible. .
You can actually feel the shards of glass hit you as the huge chandalier is supposed to crash into the auditorium at the end of the first act, the flares, bangs and flashes as the Phantom fights with Raoul while the actual operatic content is quite brilliant as is the dancing – and there’s plenty of it.
But it’s really all about Lloyd Webber’s magnificent musical score that leaves you in raptures. Music Of The Night, Masquerade, Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again, Point of No Return and the famous love duet, All I Ask of You somehow bring out goosebumps.
As a spectacle, the show is undeniably impressive. Its sets and costume design (by Paul Brown and the late Maria Bjornson), are dazzling.
I was lucky enough to see Phantom’s sequel, Love Never Dies, the day before it closed in London at the Adelphi in the Strand and having seen this 20-plus years after seeiing it for the first time, I now want to see that again to.
As usual, Cameron Mackintosh has backed another surefire winner and while The Phantom of the Opera runs in Milton Keynes until Saturday, November 24, make sure you dont miss it by calling the box office on 0844 8717652 or logging onto www.atgtickets.com/miltonkeynes (booking fees apply to both).