When? Thursday 8th November 2012
Where? Grand Theatre, Leeds, stalls
Who? Neil Morrissey, Samantha Barks, Iain Fletcher, Sebastian Croft, Daniel Huttlestone, Stephen Moore, Jack Edwards, Claire Machin, CJ Johnson, David Langham, Emma Dukes, Stevie Hutchinson, Victoria Hay, Sophie Caton, Alison Connell, Sarah Cortez, Beth Davies, Hadrian Delacey, Lee Dillon-Stuart, Nicholas Duncan, Paul Farrell, Kade Ferraiolo, Mary Fox, James Gant, Matt Harrop, Lincoln Hudson, Kara Lane, Joe Maxwell, Mikaela Newton, Ryan O’Gorman, Claire Parrish, Annie Wensak
2012 has been a truly defining year for the Leeds Grand Theatre. Under the ambitious leadership of General Manager Ian Sime and his team, the venue has steadily grown in stature and is now rightly recognised in the industry as one of the largest and most prestigious receiving venues in the country. Following a record-breaking sell-out run of The Phantom of the Opera – which followed equally noteworthy visits of AAA touring shows Dirty Dancing, Sister Act and South Pacific - Cameron Mackintosh’s Oliver! revival, which is playing the Grand for five weeks, is arguably the pick of the bunch in the theatre’s breathtaking 2012 calendar.
Oliver! is many people’s favourite musical for a reason; the songs are catchy, numerous and memorable – the show running order reads like a list of musical theatre standards: ‘Food, Glorious Food’, ‘Oliver!’, ‘Where is Love?’, ‘Consider Yourself’, ‘You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two’, ‘I’d Do Anything’ and ‘Be Back Soon’ are some of the well-known songs which feature in the first act alone. Oliver! is ageless, Lionel Bart’s book is poignant and entertaining in equal measure, the characters are instantly recognisable and wonderfully intriguing – the material is simply a godsend for the right production. And this is certainly the right production!
This 2011/13 tour, adapted from the 2009 London revival, is a joy from first to last – and I left the theatre beaming. The production numbers, in particular, are an absolute joy to behold with the teams – nay hoards – of talented children performing to an exceptional standard. A synopsis for such a well-known show is unnecessary; the only real variations from the original 1960 production – or the iconic 1968 movie – come in the form of minor directorial tweaks and the aesthetics of the staging, rather than in the plot or any aspect of character development. Laurence Connor takes the directorial helm and does a sterling job in balancing the importance of the plot with accessibility – of course, it helps when the book provides a showstopping production number every ten minutes, should the attention begin to wander! As it is though, the acted scenes are equally entertaining thanks to the weird and wacky cast of faintly menacing characters which fill the Oliver! universe.
Young Sebastian Croft, playing Oliver, sang with clarity and power throughout. Opposite him Daniel Huttlestone, set to feature as Gavroche in the 2013 Les Misérables movie, makes a very cheery and cheeky Artful Dodger. The highly experienced and hard-working adult cast are a match for the youngsters; David Langham gave an amusing turn as the mildly sinister Child-Catcher-esque undertaker Mr. Sowerberry and Stephen Moore shone as the kindly Mr. Brownlow. Samantha Barks, a runner-up in the BBC I’d Do Anything search for a Nancy, possesses a superb voice and belts with the best of them. ‘As Long as He Needs Me’ and the subsequent reprise proved arguably the stand-out number of the evening. Iain Fletcher is perhaps bordering on the panto as the villainous, psychotic Bill Sikes – indeed, he was roundly booed at the curtain call – but comes into his own in his final, dramatic moments leaving his performance feeling stronger than expected.
In my previous visit to Oliver! in the West End, I had seen stage legend Russ Abbott don the famous Fagin rags to great success and, initially, I had doubts about lead Neil Morrissey’s musical theatre credentials. However, after a nervy start, I am delighted to say Morrissey was terrific as a very bona fide Fagin. Thankfully shunning early slapstick for a much ‘smaller’ – and certainly more sincere – second act performance, by ‘Reviewing the Situation’, Morrissey had the audience rapt – the eruption of appreciation at the end of the number was one of the loudest and longest I have heard at the Grand.
Oliver! is also a particularly beautiful production and the sets and super-slick staging are a marvel. Very reminiscent of past Cameron Mackintosh productions such as his outstanding 2001 My Fair Lady or 2005′s Mary Poppins, the evening simply glides by as sets are flown in from all angles with such smoothness and symmetry as to leave you open-mouthed at the technical wizardry on show. Totie Driver/Adrian Vaux’s set designs are beautiful, the vast backdrops of London are living, breathing environs. The orchestrations (William David Brohn) are of the highest order, as one would expect from a tour of this quality. From the cheery bounce of ‘Oom Pah Pah’ to the swelling orchestral arrangement of ‘As Long As He Needs Me’, Oliver! boasts a particularly strong, classy band of fifteen, under the strong leadership of musical director Toby Higgins.
A fantastic, upbeat end to a year to remember at the Leeds Grand with Oliver! providing a West End experience in the heart of Yorkshire.
- Harry Zing
When? Tuesday 14th August 2012
Where? Grand Theatre, Leeds, dress circle
Who? John Owen-Jones, Katie Hall, Simon Bailey, Angela M Caesar, 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
Excerpts of this review of The Phantom of the Opera are taken from a previous review, “The Phantom of the Opera 2012 Review Comparison: UK Tour vs. West End” published in April 2012.
The Leeds Grand Theatre’s ongoing ambition and determination to secure the hottest shows on the touring circuit arguably culminated last night, with the press night of Cameron Mackintosh’s brand new record-breaking touring production of The Phantom of the Opera. General Manager Ian Sime’s long-term vision for the venue has, in 2012, elevated it on a par with the leading receiving venues in the country; not since My Fair Lady in 1966 has a show been booked for as many consecutive performances – or will be seen by as many visitors from across Yorkshire and beyond. It is fitting, then, that Laurence Connor’s vibrant new staging does Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic 1986 West End musical justice. Regular readers will know I am no stranger to Phantom, having reviewed the original production and tour here, the Las Vegas production here and the 25th Anniversary Concert and subsequent comment here and here.
Having only been on the road for a few months, very early into what will surely be a very long touring run, this new production of The Phantom of the Opera feels brand spanking new and worth every pretty penny that has been poured into it. The new production offers a far more literal depiction of the same Phantom universe as seen in the celebrated West End production for the last 26 years, the biggest difference being Paul Brown’s new set designs; gone are the lavish backdrops and curtains, instead we have unobtrusive projections, flown in set pieces and a large revolving multi-purpose drum with doors, which most memorably replaces the ‘travelator’ on the journey to the Phantom’s lair. It also rotates to show the swish new manager’s office, complete with exquisite red velvet styling. The drum serves to fill many of the visual gaps left (intentionally?) by original designer, the late, great Maria Björnson and on this level succeeds – however, purists would argue that Björnson’s imagery is synonymous with the Phantom brand.
Many will have seen the original production and will be curious to know what makes this production different; in actuality, besides the score and the fundamentals of the book, Connor’s Phantom is entirely original. Some changes truly improve the staging; the most notable example is the on-stage murder of a supporting character, 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; again, this more literal depiction of The Phantom changes the entire dynamic of the piece and perhaps better explains the actions of key characters later in the musical. Björnson’s Phantom is very much a Romantic anti-hero, Connor’s is a cold blooded murderer and kidnapper – both characters are equally fascinating.
Connor has made a clear statement with the production; this is his Phantom, however, the trappings of the classic original remain and are entirely unavoidable. The costumes are near-identical (although the Phantom is missing his hat), the boat in the Phantom’s lair makes a brief appearance – one feels as something of a token – and a huge ornate chandelier is raised above the stalls menacingly, but unfortunately does not fall, which will inevitably come as a disappointment to some, such is the notoriety of that particular theatrical moment in audiences collective consciousness.
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. Owen-Jones has, since my last visit to this production in Manchester, visibly adapted to the physical demands of the role and makes a striking figure as The Phantom. Katie Hall makes a very young Christine and sings beautifully; her chemistry with Bailey’s weak-willed Raoul was convincing. Her standout number, ‘Think of Me’ was warmly received and she brought the house down on this occasion with her performance of ‘Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again’. 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; Angela M Caesar has settled in wonderfully as Carlotta, adding some much-needed comic relief throughout. Greg Castiglioni does particularly well with the expanded part of Monsieur Reyer and understudy Lee Ormsby gives a confident performance as Monsieur Firmin. The performance was very tight all the way through and the dancing from the ‘ballet corps’ impeccable.
For theatre-lovers in Yorkshire, this production marks the welcome end to an 11 year wait for Phantom to return. It by no means makes the original West End production obsolete, but is well worth a visit as an outstanding production in its own right, with a strong cast led by experienced Welsh tenor John Owen-Jones (whose solo album ‘Unmasked’ I have reviewed here).
- Harry Zing