*UPDATED 26/04/2012 – The Phantom of the Opera 2012 Review Comparison: UK Tour vs. West End (April 2012)
When? Tour: Saturday 6th April 2012. West End: Thursday 12th April 2012 (matinee)
Where? Tour: Palace Theatre, Manchester, stalls. West End: Her Majesty’s Theatre, London, stalls
Who? Tour: John Owen-Jones, Katie Hall, Simon Bailey, Angela M Caesar, Andy Hockley, Simon Green, Elizabeth Marsh, Vincent Pirillo, Hannah Cadec, David Phipps-Davis, Ben Sleep, Greg Castiglioni, Lee Ormsby, Claire Platt, Rosie Bell, Henry Grant Kerswell, Richard Woodford, Leigh Rhianon Coggins, A C Garcia, Kirk Jameson, Olivia Brereton, Sarah Joyce, Sam Harrison, James Bisp, Caroline Crawley, Cindy Ciunfrini, Rachael Crocker, Sophie Hartley, Lauren Lotz, Emma Roberts-Simms, Liesl Dowsett, Alistair Barron, Michael Diana, James Pullum, Hannah Grace, Siani Owen West End: Peter Jöback, Sofia Escobar, Nadim Naaman, Wendy Ferguson, Barry James, Gareth Snook, Cheryl McAvoy, Jeremy Secomb, Anna Forbes, Tim Laurenti, Michael Kerry, Nicola Rutherford, Duncan Smith, Marc Vastenavondt, Joseph Claus, Ellen Jackson, Simon Rackley, Matthew Powell, Carmen Vass, Claire Doyle, Joanna Loxton, Richard Munday, Annatt Bass, Nicole Cato, Alison Croft, Layla Harrison, Charise Renouf, Anna Shircliff, Claire Tilling, Fiona Morley, Eleanor Blythman, Lyndsey Gardiner, Simon Shorten, Patrick Smyth, Colin Zammit
*This review contains spoilers!
Another year, another visit to The Phantom of the Opera. In fact, so under-dosed on the campy capers of the masked supervillain did I feel that I even managed to squeeze in visits to two different productions within a week. First on the agenda was a visit to the brand spanking new blockbuster tour, which has landed at the Manchester Palace from 5th April-19th May. The brand new non-replica production – a UK first – promised a new take on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic musical. A subsequent visit to the West End production was inevitable for the purposes of this review, primarily to cast my good eye over new cast member Peter Jöback, who will don the mask until September 2012.
Having seen both productions in the space of a week, I feel perfectly positioned to directly compare the two productions in various areas before finally choosing a ‘victor’, the production, I feel, is most deserving of your hard-earned. And yes, I am fully aware that the money is all going in the same pot making me, essentially, a freelance unpaid member of the RUG marketing team.
Our historic West End theatres© collectively offer an absolutely atrocious customer experience in every facet of a patron’s visit. I will be writing a more detailed piece detailing my experiences when my review backlog is cleared; but, suffice to say, having worked in a West End theatre in various capacities I continue to find a disproportionately large percentage of the West End’s front of house staff surly, arrogant and unhelpful. The genuinely intimidating security door staff at the matinée performance of Phantom we attended actually clicked his fingers at us and pointed at the door when we reached the front of the queue. Does Her Majesty’s Theatre truly have such a serious issue with rowdy audiences during midweek matinée shows that it needs two burly bouncers being extremely rude to the punters, who have paid a considerable sum to be there? Then there are the drinks prices; in the interest of drawing comparison for this review I noted the price of a 330ml bottle of Coca-Cola was £3.00 and a large (250ml) glass of house white wine was £9.20. I noted the uppity front of house ushers literally screaming “NO FLASH PHOTOGRAPHY INSIDE THE AUDITORIUM”. Twenty minutes before curtain up. I sat in Row F (£39.00 each, TKTS) which has recently been refurbished and I must say, undoubtedly these are some of the best seats in the house, row F is the start of the rake and the seats are also boosted a clear foot above the row immediately in front.
Manchester Palace Theatre is a very grandiose regional theatre, similar in style to many West End theatres in size and feel. We were welcomed inside the busy foyer and quickly and easily found our seats. I noted a 330ml bottle of Coca-Cola was £2.00 and a large (250ml) house white wine was £5.80. Ample subsidised NCP parking is available five minutes walk from the theatre. I sat in row BB (£53.00 each, box office) which should really be sold as restricted viewing. Whilst it didn’t hinder my enjoyment of the production, it was impossible to see the floor of even the very front of the stage, which impinged on my party’s view of some crucial scenes including the finale.
Winner: Tour (sit in at least row F or beyond)
The production design forms the biggest deviation between the new production and the original. In the West End production, the late, great Maria Björnson oversaw the entire production design encompassing the famous sets and costumes, which are synonymous with the Phantom brand. In my opinion, it is Maria Björnson’s incredible designs which make Phantom what it is. Phantom is to me a feast of delectable imagery with a bit of a plot and some rather decent music woven in. Tim Rice, when accepting his special Olivier Award gong last week said – and I paraphrase; “Andrew Lloyd Webber and I were lucky – we were surrounded by a team of very clever and talented people when we started out”. Whilst Rice did not work on Phantom, this quote certainly rings true of the West End production of the show; everything simply comes together. Hal Prince and Gillian Lynne’s work with Michael Crawford, creating the famous blocking and imagery used in scenes such as ‘The Music of the Night’ is famous in its own right, the image of the Phantom thrust against the portcullis backdrop is one of the most fondly remembered. Andrew Bridge’s wonderful lighting design compliments every nook and cranny of Björnson majestic sets. Lynne’s choreography takes the hum-drum of ‘Masquerade’ and, with Prince, turns the Paris Opera’s staircase into a shifting wall of colour.
The sets and costumes in the original production are still a joy to behold. Björnson’s shimmering ethereal world is heightened to dreamlike levels; magic takes place before our eyes as the chandelier rises poltergeist-like above the audience, the Phantom rows his beloved Christine across a ‘vast, glassy lake’. It is intentionally stylised in a very fitting way.
The new touring production offers a far more literal depiction of the same Phantom universe. The biggest difference being Paul Brown’s new set designs; gone are the lavish backdrops and curtains, instead we have unobtrusive projections (Nina Dunn) and a large revolving multi-purpose drum with doors, which most notably replaces the ‘travelator’ on the journey to the Phantom’s lair. It also rotates to show the swish new manager’s office, complete with embossed red wallpaper and prop-heavy decor. There is no doubting the drum – which made use of the resident revolve – is impressive, most particularly when staging the first journey down to the lair. The drum serves to fill many of the gaps left (intentionally?) by Björnson and on this level succeeds, however, I would argue that in filling these gaps, much of the imagery that the audience creates for themselves is destroyed. Given the choice between the two stagings, the minuses outweigh the plusses in the tour. The original staging the lake scene, in particular, I don’t believe can be bettered; we gain a drum and we lose our ‘vast, glassy lake’.
It is worth stating now; the chandelier does not fall and yes, it is very disappointing in direct comparison to the West End. It lights up and wobbles a bit and a pyro goes off (with shards of plastic landing on us) but ultimately is tame. I’m sure the production team would rather have done something more spectacular, such as the chandelier falling on the stage (as seen in the Hungarian non-replica production), but with the show being non-resident this is a technical impossibility. The lack of trapdoors is a constant issue in many of the famous scenes such as the lake scene and the finale, with many workarounds in place. The ‘angel’ post-’All I Ask of You’ scene is also notably unimpressive in comparison to the West End; once again the far more literal or ‘realistic’ approach loses lots of the magic.
Some changes have been made for the better; the most notable example is the on-stage murder of supporting character Joseph Buquet which is shown in full gory detail and excellently executed (pardon the pun!). It was a rare chance to see The Phantom at his most evil and sadistic. When arriving at ‘Il Muto’ in the West End production, I found myself yearning to see the newly imagined scene from the tour. The ballet scene in the original production, was in hindsight, crying out for this improvement and the scene is better for it. However, many of the weaker scenes have been given little or no attention and I can’t help but feel, much like I did with the Vegas production which I reviewed last year, this is an opportunity missed. WHY is there still a player piano in this show?
The costumes, when changed, are done for the sake of it with no visible benefits. The comedy robe and glittery mask that the Phantom wears in the ‘Point of No Return’ scene are just ridiculous. The famous fedora hat is also entirely absent, much to the chagrin of hat fans in the audience. ‘Masquerade’, curiously, being the number with the most opportunity to explore interesting costumes, is almost an exact replica of the West End with a couple of notable exceptions. The Phantom’s appearance as the Red Death at the end of the number was faintly stupid due to his less-than-spectacular exit (he turns around and strolls off the stage at a medium walking pace) – the West End costume, whilst a bit cheesy with the giant rubber head and less-than-subtle use of a double is at least entertaining in an over-the-top kind of way.
Winner: West End
*UPDATED* Directional Changes:
After receiving literally a couple of requests, here are my thoughts on the hotly debated changes made to a few key scenes in the touring production. The one which has divided fans the most is the newly choreographed ‘The Music of the Night’ number. Gone are the classic steps devised (and, allegedly copyrighted) by members of the original cast and creative team; instead, the new ‘Music of the Night’ is an altogether seedier and frankly stranger affair. Possibly with one eye on foreshadowing the events of Love Never Dies, the new direction sees the Phantom first blindfolding the (willing, it must be said) Christine, before eventally laying her still blindfolded sleeping body in his bed as the lights fade. The insinuation is less than subtle, but hardly as ‘offensive’ as being suggested in some – predictably obsessive – quarters; the half-dozen rabid hardcore ‘Deserted Phans’ I have spoken to have their own theories as to the reason for the newly-imagined blocking, including (but not limited to): avoidance of paying royalty fees, alien invasion, attempting to sexualise the show to support Love Never Dies, the double dip recession and weapons of mass destruction. In my opinion, the changes made are done without cynicism to try and make the show fresh and interesting for those tired of seeing 26 year old choreography repeated ad infinitum in what is a ‘new production’. Or it could be crop circles, who knows?
The newly directed ‘first unmasking’ scene is amended; rather than Christine unmasking the Phantom as he composes, she now snatches the mask while the Phantom is dabbing down the oozing massive hole in the side of his head with what appears to be a handkerchief. The Phantom’s reaction is almost exactly the same as the original. I can’t say what the point in that particular change was, but I am all for handkerchiefs in the theatre. And strolling around with parasols with a big hat on – and ‘a bit of tap’, but sadly these changes are yet to be made.
Aside from the vastly improved ‘Il Muto’ scene, I can’t think of many moments which have been changed for the better; a slight change of blocking here, a slightly different expression there. But aside from The Phantom being a bit less magicky and a lot more like a normal, albeit psychopathic, bloke with a massive hole in the side of his head there is little to report. All the same emotions remain, the romantic connection between the characters is neither better or worse – the changes to direction are a lot less damaging to the show’s alluring appeal than the changes to the production design.
Winner: West End
Phantom is of course an ensemble piece, but in my experience the success or failure of a performance hinges on the abilities of the three leads, The Phantom, Christine and Raoul, played in the tour by John Owen-Jones, Katie Hall and Simon Bailey respectively. All three performers have Phantom previous in the West End production and it is little surprise to find them perfectly capable. Owen-Jones has over 2,000 performances in the mask to his name, yet his performance has never felt fresher in this new production. He manages to bring a softer side to his performance – which is welcome – and sings as beautifully as ever. The well-built Owen-Jones can lack in a certain finesse required for the role at times, making him look a touch clumsy in comparison to the likes of Crawford, or even his generally inferior predecessor Ramin Karimloo, but such is the sacrifice for casting a particularly good singer in the role. Katie Hall is good enough as a very young Christine and sings nicely; her chemistry with Bailey’s weak-willed Raoul was convincing, though not perhaps as convincing as with Gareth Gates in the UK Tour of Les Misérables. Her standout number, ‘Think of Me’ was warmly received, but she struggled somewhat with her second act ‘Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again’, perhaps trying too hard on the acting side and forgetting her vocal basics. Bailey sings well enough for the part but can seem a touch wooden with his acting; but I suspect this may be directed as the character is more similar to his reincarnation in the depressingly trite Love Never Dies. The supporting cast are all capable and Greg Castiglioni does particularly well with the expanded part of Monsieur Reyer. The performance was very tight all the way through, the dancing impeccable as you would expect from a new blockbuster production. One particular cause for amusement was the terror of the harnessed actors as they descended the ‘pop out’ staircase on the exterior of the drum; the panic in their eyes as they slowly stepped down was genuine – it must be particularly nervy for Owen-Jones wearing the mask!
A lot of people, including myself, were very excited to see Swedish pop star Peter Jöback in the role. His performance at the 25th Anniversary Concert was spectacular for all the wrong reasons, but he is the first truly different Phantom to don the mask in ages and brings a buzz of excitement back to the West End. Well, he is certainly different! I really do have to commend Jöback; he tries so hard and actually attempts to make the role his own throughout. However, I couldn’t stop thinking about The Producers. Franz Liebkind falls and breaks his leg (“I broke my leg!“) forcing the uncontrollably camp Roger DeBris to step into the title role; what follows is a hilariously camp parody of a role which was written to be quite serious, no matter how melodramatic or over-the-top he may be in reality. I’m sure you follow my drift; Jöback is a laugh-a-minute and thoroughly entertaining in the role. Effeminate yet graceful, he moves like a Goddess; seducing Christine with a barrage
of tightly choreographed dance steps in ‘Music of the Night’. Jöback has worked so hard on perfecting his ‘Phantom’ voice he is almost indistinguishable from the real thing (if you close your eyes), except when trying to sing at the very top or very bottom of his register. He looks simply fabulous in the role; a freak of nature, more make-up than man. The truth is, I actually really enjoyed Jöback’s performance; shamelessly showbiz but entirely effort-driven, he is certainly a curio which is worth a look, just don’t expect miracles. Incidentally, he missed the previous two performances due to a throat infection, I would strongly recommend if you must see him then do so now; I have a feeling he may not last until September.
Understudy Nadim Naaman played Raoul with aplomb, looking confident and assured. He has a powerhouse voice which he was keen to show off when given the chance; keep an eye on this one. Wendy Ferguson and Jeremy Secomb gave their all as Carlotta and Piangi respectively; two actors who looked happy to be there. Elsewhere, I was a little disappointed. There were quite a few actors on autopilot, which I find unforgivable considering the number of actors desperate for work who would give their all every performance. I think the cast could do with a freshening up before it gets truly stale, as several looked tired and bored in the ensemble and supporting roles. The dancing was awful. I think they may have been missing quite a few cast members as I spotted every swing on. Energy levels were below an acceptable standard in some scenes such as ‘Masquerade’, which was a shame as this is purely down to the cast’s efforts on the day. The ‘ballet’, for what it was worth, was completely out of time and needs remedial action.
The tour takes away more than it gives; whilst the new effects are impressive and as technically astounding – if not more so – than the original production, it simply lacks the magic Prince, Björnson et al created at Her Majesty’s Theatre over twenty-five years ago. Much like the Les Mis tour, sometimes filling the gaps can destroy the suspension of disbelief. As with the Las Vegas production and the 25th Anniversary Celebrations, I don’t feel that the production team quite understand what – if anything – is wrong with the show and end up changing the wrong aspects, leaving the dodgy areas intact.
The more abstract, stylised West End production remains a better proposition in terms of production. Just not at the moment. Jöback is enjoyable in the role – not always for the right reasons – but the rest of the cast are generally off-colour and in need of redirection. If I had to pay £40+ to see either of these two shows again in the immediate future, I would undoubtedly choose the tour which is, at the moment, a tighter, better cast and more energetic affair.
Winner: The tour currently offers a better all-round experience as of April 2012.