Phantom at The Royal Albert Hall Karimloo/Boggess/Fraser - 2 October 2011 7:00pm


Twenty-five years is a HUGE milestone for any creative property. And when it was announced that the performance at Royal Albert Hall in London would be simulcast live in movie theaters across the globe, it was a not-to-miss event. So my anticipation and expectations were pretty high.


All in all, it was marvelously mediocre.


That’s not to say that it was a disaster. Far from it – there were a number of things that I enjoyed about the 25th anniversary show. But from my perspective, the direction and character interpretations here made it not so much a celebration of 25 years of “The Phantom of the Opera” as it was a prequel to “Love Never Dies.” And that I could not stand for.


As this was a completely unique production, it would be neither fair nor appropriate to compare it directly to other existing productions of PotO in terms of set design and other obvious physical criteria (although when set limitations result in distinct changes in choreography, I will address them). What I do see as fair game is the score and acting (as these are least affected by the venue) and overall intent. I will attempt to stay as diplomatic as possible within the nature of my style of reviews, but I do not apologize for criticizing where I feel it is deserved. So if you are overly sensitive to critiques of favorite actors of yours or how they portray the characters they play, this is NOT the review for you.


Aside from a few sour notes from the flutist during the Il Muto ballet, it sounded wonderful and I had absolutely no issues there. And the close up of the attractive violinist during the Entr’acte? Good call, Mr. Director.


Set Design:
Having seen the Royal Albert Hall featured in ALW’s 50th Birthday Gala, it is clear that the venue is better suited for concerts rather than staged performances – and definitely not equipped to directly transpose a show like PotO that relies very much on sets, drops, trapdoors and other stage effects. But the venue is the venue and the show’s look was adapted as best as it could be to stay as close as possible to the original within the given restrictions (making use of fixed staircases, a wall of projection screens and a larger screen up behind the orchestra.) I imagine we would see something similar from any future touring productions if they intend to play in smaller venues.


The projections were hit and miss. While they were effective in expanding the small stage for scenes like AIAoY and serving as backdrops for Il Muto and the manager’s office, when used as virtual versions of Björnson’s lush drapery they fell woefully short. The ambiance of real curtains was no more and a projected backdrop falling and almost hitting Carlotta has none of the danger that a real one does. And splitting the virtual backdrops between the panels onstage and the screen behind the orchestra above breaks the effect, reminding you that they aren’t real. And while I thought the live projection of the front row of the audience to serve as the audience Christine bowed to at the end of ToM was cool, seeing people in modern dress applauding Christine sucked me out of the show. Probably the worse offender was using projected candles and candelabra for the lake. It was a complete failure and the entire scene lost the awe and magic of the original. Unfortunately, there was no way to duplicate the original effect with the limitations of the auditorium. I would hope that the new touring production finds a better solution to this scene.


The proscenium arch was a close reproduction of the original, and raising its central piece during the Overture gave the scene some movement since the Swarovski crystal chandelier remained suspended and immobile throughout the show. The production also took a page from the Las Vegas production in using live extras in period costume to occupy the false boxes on either side of the proscenium (although they contributed nothing to the show based on the filmed footage. It might have been different when seen live). The travelator was replaced by a catwalk that merely rose and lowered and served its purpose in the show perfectly fine.


The Royal Albert Hall’s small stage leant an intimacy to several scenes (having the Auctioneer standing at a podium amongst the bidders, for instance), but adding more ensemble members into less space than you originally had did make other scenes like Hannibal and Masquerade seem overly crowded. And concerning Masquerade, while the addition of two more little bands and plenty more costumed ensemble members gave it a sense of chaotic revelry (but generally well managed by Gillian Lynne’s modified choreography), the Red Death’s entrance was lackluster due to his entire staircase consisting of five steps and appearing to be little more than a front stoop. As it is with cinematography, having the viewer or characters in the scene look up at another figure gives that person a sense of authority by placing the viewer in a subservient position. But with Red Death almost eye to eye with the other characters, that threat is negated. This was exacerbated by the fact that he did stayed completely still, never invading their space at all.


I understand that Laurence Connor is also the director of the new UK Tour coming in 2012 so I can only assume what we saw here in terms of general approach is what people will see on tour. I vehemently disagree with the LND slant I felt in the production, but I will get into that by individuals when I discuss the actors. For now, I’ll cover various elements in terms of staging that I felt were worth mentioning.

From little things like the always-heard-but-never-seen-until-now piano for Carlotta’s ToM, the very realistic struggle during PoNR as the Phantom pulled Christine back onstage and the ninja flash bomb he used to affect his escape, and the more fully filled-out Il Muto curtain call to additions like the poor man’s Las Vegas Buquet hanging (onstage struggle with the Phantom but switching to a dummy for the actual hanging) and a whole squad of gendarmes to make the preparations for capturing the Phantom look more serious (not to mention moving Buquet up to the catwalk for “Magical Lasso” for a cheeky “up-tutu” shot of the ballerinas onstage. Good job, camera three); there was plenty of neat things to appreciate. But for every nice bit there was something that didn’t sit well with me. Such as Christine’s dressing room reduced to a table and stool arranged just like London’s LND (a projection stood in for the mirror), no Box Five (although I saw no reason why they didn’t include it), the Graveyard Trio (too bad the first time I got to see it performed it was two arseholes trying to get the girl) and the Phantom suddenly turning into Tim the Enchanter from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” and setting off flash pots across the stage since he had neither a skull staff or Vegas rocket gloves. And then there’s the elephant in the room: the chandelier. Now, no matter what critics say, the chandelier isn’t the star of the show, but it IS a key effect. It started the show already suspended above the audience and its reveal during the overture was very dull: a slow lifting of the dustcover and its lights flickering on and off. When it came time for its famous crash, all we were given were sparks flying out of it. Granted, the auditorium was not set up to handle the stunt effect and you’d be a fool to even attempt to crash a Swarovski chandelier, but such an iconic moment should have been planned far in advance to be, in a word, spectacular.


Ramin Karimloo (Phantom): Karimloo wasn’t a deal-breaker. His interpretation wasn’t bad, but there wasn’t enough for me to latch on to. He didn’t bring any rock elements to the character that I had feared he might, but his acting and voice didn’t wow me either. And shouty Phantoms tend to rub me the wrong way unless they have something else compelling about them. I was glad that they added back the big rubbery lip over Karimloo’s own big rubbery lips after removing it to make LND!Phantom more physically attractive, but the disfigurement seemed underdone in the painting department. There was no shading or definition to its various hills and valleys of puckered flesh. Whether that was a more realistic take is subject to debate, but to me it definitely underplayed the woeful countenance.


I found a number of unique moments in his performance that warranted me to take notes. Overall, his Phantom had a sense of curiosity in that when he took Christine’s hand (after the MotN signature pose), he looked at it as if surprised that he was holding her hand. That almost child-like curiosity/fascination was interesting but staring down Christine’s top throughout “Turn your face away” was less so.


Another point of note was Karimloo’s AIAoY reprise after PoNR. Through its entirety he emphasized the words “me” and “my” – was it a conscious choice to show that the Phantom’s concept of love was still self-centered at this moment? The Final Lair also had a few interesting turns as well. Due to the lack of a physical portcullis to keep Raoul separated from the Phantom and Christine, something was still required to keep Raoul at arm’s length. The director’s solution was to have the Phantom grab Christine by the throat, which DID stop Raoul cold in his tracks. It seemed an extreme choice, but upon further reflection, it was no worse than what Leroux’s Erik did in the original novel and gave Karimloo’s Phantom another moment to demonstrate how dangerous and unstable he is (who wouldn’t want to bed that, huh ladies?) while also solving a blocking problem. But his “Anakin Skywalker on Mustafar” move does stand out because he didn’t carry that dangerous quality through the rest of the scene. The lack of a throne (actually, it turned out it was there, just not used) had the Phantom and Christine kneeling next to each other for their big confrontation. Again, having them eye-to-eye negated the power of one over the other compared to the original blocking with the Phantom sitting on his throne while Christine kneels at his feet. The kiss was lackluster. Karimloo’s Phantom seemed surprised, but not paralyzed by the kiss and it didn’t play up to the grandness of the orchestrations. Post-kiss, the freeing of Raoul, which in the original staging is full of tension, lacked any here, and it being drawn out with some extra business of Karimloo lighting a candle to cut Raoul free just made it feel longer.


My favorite moment of Karimloo’s was the AIAoY rooftop reprise. I really felt the character’s heartbreak there and I think it worked quite well.


Sierra Boggess (Christine): Boggess’s Las Vegas Christine and 25th Anniversary Christine are night and day. In Las Vegas, her Christine was at the extreme of whatever emotion she was experiencing, an interpretation common in the history of the show. And while a legitimate approach, Hyper!Christine is not a favorite of mine. With the 25th Anniversary, Boggess approached the character with a lot more nuance from an acting standpoint (her recent work in “Master Class” seems to have paid off). Possibly her best moment was WYWSHA where she brought forth the character’s emotional conflict throughout the song and the applause she received was well-deserved. I’ve seen other actresses bring that level of acting to Christine’s big character solo number and it’s always fantastic to see.


Unfortunately, some of her other acting choices revealed her experience with LND appeared to have had a great influence on her as she reprised this role. MotN felt a lot like the movie version, but with much better singing and acting. I didn’t feel any conflicting emotions of fear and attraction in Boggess’s approach to that scene.


Personally, I felt Boggess fell a little short when it came to PoNR. She got off to a good start, her entrance was very bouncy and flirty, but her Apple!PoNR was a complete disappointment – no more than a vigorous rubbing against her thigh and rolling around in her palms. Seriously, that’s it? The majority of her performance was half-lidded eyes and eyebrow acting. Even though there were no set restrictions, she didn’t go with the leg-on-bench choreography, but she did lean against the edge of the table like she was a cover model of a sports car magazine. The hottest it ever got was the UK-exclusive “boob grab” choreography even then she had her hand under his. Is this the same Christine who would one day shag the Phantom in the great outdoors the night before her wedding? Overall, it felt like someone running to the edge of a diving board and chickening out at the last second.


And as an aside, guy running camera 3? I know it’s pretty, but I’m sure you were meant to pull focus on Karimloo singing at the organ in the midground and not on Boggess’s rear end in the foreground. And admit it, you were the one who did the upskirt shot of her while she was changing out of her pointe shoes at the dressing table, weren’t you?


The most drastic change was in the final moments of the Final Lair in which she sings a reprise of AIAoY typically sung as she and Raoul sail off beyond the portcullis. With the lack of a portcullis, she now sings the line, “Say you’ll share with me one love, one lifetime,” as she pauses on the staircase leading out of the Lair while Raoul stretches his hand out to take her away. And while she is not looking at the Phantom, it is clear she is singing the words to him rather than to Raoul as in the original production. Again, it is an obvious attempt to bridge the two shows by seeding these little character moments into the original musical.


Hadley Fraser (Raoul): About 90% of what soured me on the 25th Anniversary performance was Fraser’s Raoul, which emphasizes why Raoul is a vital role to get right (or at least in the ballpark) for the story to work. Because it is an underwritten role to start with, actors have a limited amount to work with, so they must choose their approach wisely. When played with warmth, love and a protective strength, he serves as a perfect foil to the Phantom’s more possessive/obsessive love and manipulative ways and creates a stronger dynamic in the love triangle. Stronger love triangle equals stronger conflict. Stronger conflict equals stronger drama. Fraser’s Raoul, which I can only describe as “arrogant prickish arsehole,” does none of these things and actually skews the story to more of a Phantom/Christine angle, and also makes Christine seem more easily manipulated and simple-minded if the actress attempts to maintain a love triangle in her performance. In my opinion, portraying Raoul in this manner undermines the story. And for me, story is paramount.


From start to finish, Fraser’s Raoul did not change; he had no character arc. In the prologue, he sat and intensely stared directly ahead (looking more like a young man in a fake beard than a sick and elderly man) and his first line, “Boy,” is delivered without looking or even turning towards the porter – like an arrogant aristocrat speaking to a lowly servant. And while he was more toned down in his first meeting with Christine (although still carried an air of snobbishness), his dismissive wave-off when she calls after him belayed his underlying nature. In Act 2 he expressed irritation at the secret engagement and frustration/impatience later, even audibly growling as he addressed the unseen Phantom after laying out his plan to capture him and snapping at Firmin while directing the police prior to Don Juan Triumphant. Anger and rudeness should not be misconstrued as assertiveness. And if you do, my advice it to take a good hard look at your relationships.


But the crux of my complete and utter hatred of Fraser’s Raoul was the rooftop scene. This is the only scene that gives the actor a chance to show the audience the love Raoul has for Christine and solidify that part of the triangle. If the audience is convinced that these two characters really love each other, then the rest of the show is stronger for it. But Fraser’s attempt at connecting with the audience started off with him grabbing Christine roughly by the arms as he sings, “There is no Phantom of the Opera” with all the warmth of, ‘B!TCH, WILL YOU SHUT THE F%CK UP?!?” Even his simple line, “Christine” as she is weeping on the opposite side of the stage is delivered in such a way that is more impatient and irritated at her behavior than concerned. The rest of the song felt to me like he was simply saying these words of love to placate Christine – that he didn’t mean a word of it. This, my friends, is the rich arsehole character from all those 80s teen comedies, only in 1880s garb.


This is not to say that the interpretation is all Fraser’s fault. As a complete newcomer to the role, he had no prior experience to draw on. I suspect as a blank slate, his performance was influenced primarily by the director and ALW. And as it stands, it is clear that this particular Raoul would plausibly develop into the alcoholic, gambling Raoul of LND.


And Raouls should not have more eyeliner than their Christines. That’s just plain wrong.


Wendy Ferguson (Carlotta): Ferguson was serviceable as Carlotta (but excellent for someone who stepped in at the very last minute) and her more subdued characterization worked well for film since very extreme histrionics would have made her look as ridiculous as Minnie Driver in the 2004 movie. I particularly liked the change-up of Carlotta having an emotional breakdown in Hannibal rather than a diva tantrum purely because it was something I’d never seen before (maybe those 19 seasons wore her out) -- although having said that, a tantrum would have given her more personality. Her slapping Reyer on the bottom with her DJT score and the fear in her eyes when Mme Giry reminded her that the Phantom may be present (this was very much like Patricia Phillips, who brought a lot on the acting side to the character, did in the Broadway production) were also good.


Wynne Evans (Piangi): Nothing to write home about. He stressed the “Rome” as appropriate, but then choked on the final note, which fell flat as a joke. The rest of his comedic moments (“If you can call this sh—gibberish… art!” and his DJT “Ha. Ha. Ha.” laugh) didn’t work any better. And no elephant? Hannibal NEEDS an elephant! That’s how he rolls!


And while I’m on the subject of Hannibal, I must mention that it was an interesting hybrid of the original and Las Vegas versions: Reyer interrupts Piangi to correct him, then the entire rehearsal proceeds without interruption and the managers enter afterwards. The Giry Girls still lost their character introductions, but Christine’s was moved to just before her audition, and she even got to participate in it by telling Andre the violinist was her father.


Barry James (Firmin): I’m sorry, but this was about 5% of what turned me off about the 25th Anniversary production as drunk!Firmin did nothing for me. Kudos for a completely different interpretation from anything I’d seen before, but he reeked of grease and booze and was one degree away from a moustache-twirling silent movie caricature. I found his performance more a distraction than anything else.


Gareth Snook (Andre): No harm, no foul. He reminded me of a young Frank Langella.


Liz Robertson (Mme Giry): I didn’t feel she brought anything to the role except making Giry more wooden than usual. And epic fail on the cane thumps. I could barely hear them.


Daisy Maywood (Meg Giry): She didn’t register at all for me. Maywood brought nothing to the role and no real personality. Or maybe she was trying to match her stage mom.


Sergei Polunin (Slave Master): Yeah, yeah, he’s the principal dancer with the British Royal Ballet and sure he’s got – to quote Chris Barrie from “Red Dwarf” – the “macho chest and silly oiled nipples,” but I don’t think that justifies expanding the role to the point that he has a camera shot of his entrance when the focus of the scene is Carlotta or to include poses that scream, “This isn’t the Opera, ladies. You’ve got tickets to the GUN SHOW!” Dude, stop it. Seriously. You’re embarrassing yourself.


Others: It was fun to play “Spot the Phantom Alumni” throughout the performance. Earl Carpenter’s Auctioneer was the most obvious (did anyone else think he looked kinda like a young Crawford?) and his non-Grim Reaper, stuffy Englishman Auctioneer was an interesting change. Having never seen the London production, I don’t know if this is par for the course, but it was a jarring difference from what I’m used to seeing. I was also delighted to see that Andre finally got a date to the Hannibal premiere and he had excellent taste since the lady turned out to be Deborah Dutcher. She would later appear as part of the female chorus in the Sitzprobe scene alongside Celia Graham and Robyn North (I’d recognize that seam-straining, lily white cleavage anywhere).


In conclusion, while it had its moments, Fraser’s Raoul and the ever-present and meddling hand of ALW were too much for me to completely praise the 25th Anniversary production because when it comes down to it, that’s not what it was. Like George Lucas before him, Lloyd Webber went back and tweaked his original masterpiece in small but fundamental ways so that while it gave all the outward appearances of the show that opened 25 years ago, the spirit of it had changed. Instead of taking the opportunity to honor the work he, Hal Prince, Cameron Mackintosh, Maria Björnson, Gillian Lynne, Charles Hart, and Andrew Bridge had done; instead of giving us a once-in-a-lifetime, spare no expense production that culled the best of the best in all departments to create the ultimate Phantom of the Opera musical experience, he gave us a cleverly disguised prequel to “Love Never Dies.” And he gave it to us for posterity; a sugar-coated pill we’d otherwise never have swallowed.