It’s 12.30am Sunday night – well, Monday now I suppose – and I’ve just returned from the Royal Albert Hall where I have witnessed a piece of musical theatre history in the making. This weekend was, of course, the celebration of The Phantom of the Opera 25th Anniversary, undeniably Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most successful creation.
Following suit from Les Miserables‘ 25th anniversary concerts at the O2 Arena last October, three performances of a fully-staged production of Phantom took place on the esteemed stage of the Royal Albert Hall. Although it couldn’t measure up to the O2 in terms of size, the RAH is such a beautifully stunning venue that it was the perfect choice to host Phantom’s 25th celebrations; it only exhilarates the feel and sense of the show, which is set in a Parisian opera house after all.
Having missed out on Les Mis‘ 25th anniversary shows, I had every intention of making sure that I was here for one of Phantom’s – after tonight’s performance, I am extremely glad that I did.
I actually got my first glimpse of the show Saturday afternoon, where I was fortunate enough to be able to come along to the dress rehearsal, thanks to a friend of mine who was involved in the show. Sadly, due to their tech over-running, we were only able to see Act One, but that was more than enough to whet my appetite for the real thing tonight. Cameron Mackintosh gave a brief introduction on stage before running the dress rehearsal, which the cast were brilliant in, even then.
I was back today for the final performance, getting the ball rolling on the evening with drinks with friends in the lavishly-priced RAH bar – the souvenir programmes were hardly cheap either at £10, although I did buy one regardless.
For those who were unlucky enough not to see one of the shows at the RAH, or the live screening at select cinemas tonight, I strongly urge you to pick up a copy of the DVD when it’s released. Matt Kinley’s set designs were both visually stunning and cleverly imagined, paying tribute to the original production designs of Maria Bjornson (who is sadly no longer with us); as with the use of the additional ‘opera boxes’ which were built onto the end of the RAH balconies and featured the sculptures used in the original show. The use of projections certainly aided the show, although there were times when they looked a little ‘cheap’, as one person there commented. Seeing the Phantom at his organ on the backdrop screen during the Overture was a wonderful example of how the projections enhanced the production, as with the ‘mirror’ scene.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of it for me though, was hearing Andrew Lloyd Webber’s beautiful score played in a venue like the RAH. That organ! The orchestra hugely deserve to be recognised for their hard work. They sounded superb and hearing the music of Phantom played on such a scale was something my ears certainly thanked them for
As brilliant as the sets and the orchestra and everything else were, it was the cast that brought the whole thing together. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh found the most ridiculously talented bunch of people to perform in these shows. The mixture of Phantom alumni, past and present, in the ensemble was a real treat and everybody was on top form, especially when you know that they have only had a couple of weeks to rehearse this extravaganza. I think I’ll have to wait for the DVD to spot who was where, but I did manage to pick out one or two familiar faces from my seat in the Gods (although resolute in my determination to be there, I was still not going to shell out £180 upwards for a view from the stalls – that’s what the DVD is for), such as Tabitha Webb and our MADTrust Chairman, David Pendlebury.
Wendy Ferguson, current Carlotta in the London production at Her Majesty’s, stepped into the role in place of American Soprano Keira Duffy, who unfortunately lost her voice on Friday. I’m already a fan of Wendy, after she did a stellar job at the cabaret the Phantom cast put on for MADTrust, and she was a complete delight tonight, as was Wynne Evans as Piangi. Those awful Go Compare adverts not only make you want to do a Van Gogh and chop off your own ears so that you no longer have to hear them, but they also mask the fact that Wynne is a legitimate tenor who has performed in opera houses around the world. Audiences who heard him tonight will now hopefully realise that there is a lot more to Wynne Evans than ‘Gio Campario’, a character that irritates as much as Nick Jonas did in Les Mis – well, almost.
Liz Robertson was flawless, as always, in her portrayal of Madame Giry and Daisy Maywood suitably sweet as the young Meg Giry, while Gareth Snook and Barry James raised plenty of chuckles as the comic duo of the Managers. Sergei Polunin, principal of the Royal Ballet danced exquisitely as Slave Master.
One person who I hope surprised a lot of people tonight was Hadley Fraser. There were some negative murmours swirling around his casting, bemoaning the fact that he had never appeared in a production of Phantom. Never mind that the same was true of other 25th cast members, as well as last years’ Les Mis, for whatever reason, a small minority zeroed in on Hadley as a target for their bitching. After his performance as Raoul in these three shows however, I suspect a lot of them will be taking it all back. Hadley is an incredibly under-rated talent, in my opinion. Having only appeared in relatively small productions before, it’s with his recent casting as Javert in the London production of Les Miserables that a wider audience have come to know his name. As well as being a gifted stage actor, he also posseses a tremendous voice which was on full display tonight. Although not a typical voice for Raoul, Hadley impressed with his rich tones and I for one am glad that he was given this opportunity. After a small appearance as Grantaire in Les Mis’ 25th anniversary show, it’s gratifying to see him take to the stage in a leading role for this show as millions of people around the world will now have seen what he is capable of.
I’ve seen Sierra Boggess perform the role of Christine in the Phantom sequel, Love Never Dies and as good as she was then, she is even better now. She looked and sounded sublime on that stage, flawless in her portrayal of the Phantom‘s protege; she hits those high notes and makes it look effortless. The ovation she got from the audience after Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again went on for a good few minutes, and deservedly so.
Still, there was always going to be one star that shone brightest. This musical has so many wonderful elements to it: the score; the costumes; the story; the designs…yet at the epicentre of it all is a character that has touched so many people in so many ways – The Phantom. Tormentor of the opera house, he is a blackmailer and a kidnapper, not to mention a murderer – he should be the villain of the piece yet, despite all these actions, he isn’t and that is because The Phantom is such a rich and complex character; a musical genius, tortured by his appearance and how life has treated him and desperate to be loved by the girl who inspires his creative mind. People can empathise with some aspect of his character and because of this, he is loved, not reviled.
It takes an actor of a certain standard to unravel all the different threads of The Phantom, to dig through all the layers that define him and really do justice to the part. Ramin Karimloo not only reaches that standard, but surpasses it by miles. He commanded the stage completely and captivated the audience with his performance, terrifying at times and so heart-breakingly sad at others. His every movement and action served the role and the lungs on that man – awe-inspiring. His rendition of The Music of the Night blew the roof off the RAH and almost brough the chandelier down prematurely. Ramin has been oustanding every time I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him perform, but tonight he truly outdid himself.
I still have the memory of when I first saw Ramin and Sierra on stage together in Love Never Dies and thinking how I would love to hear them do Point of No Return, which has always been a particular favourite of mine, so to have that finally realised tonight was a very special moment for me personally. Special as it was though, nothing can compare to the experience of the finale.
The Lord himself came out to make a speech and pay tribute to those who were such a vital part of the original production of Phantom and couldn’t be here to share in the celebration of it’s twenty five years, such as Maria Bjornson and Steve Barton. To then have the original London production join him on stage, with the inclusion of Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman was an amazing thing for me, and I’m sure for many other audience members too. Being too young to have attended those original performances 25 years ago, it was a dream to see them there together – a presumed impossibility that I can now tick off my list of life ambitions. To then also have some of the best Phantom‘s of the past, not only appear, but sing as well was just icing on the cake. I missed Colm Wilkinson at Les Mis 25, so hearing him sing live is another ambition ticked off, as was Anthony Warlow and of course, it wouldn’t have been right not to have the wonderful John Owen Jones up there with them. It was interesting to also hear Swedish star Peter Joback perform, as he will be taking over the Phantom role in March. The original Michael in The Witches of Eastwick, he has a very distinctive quality to his voice that is certain to divide opinion (it’s started already), but pre-judgement can be a dangerous thing, so until the time comes, it’s best to refrain from doing so.
Tonight was a unique experience that is going to stay with me for a very long time. The Phantom of the Opera has always had special meaning for me; it reignited my love of theatre and like almost everyone, it has something that reaches out and speaks to me on a very deep level. To be there and share the night with thousands of people who have come together through a mutual love of this show was amazing and it’s hard to describe just how electric the atmosphere was – you really did have to be there yourself. It’s something that in years to come, I can look back on with a fond smile and say, “Yes, I was there. And you know what? It was phantastic!”
By Julie Robinson
3rd October 2011