Book: Richard Stilgoe and Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics: Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe
Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber
Director: Seth Sklar-Heyn, based on the original direction by Hal Prince
There is a reason that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s tale of operatic shenanigans in 19th-century Paris has proved to have such longevity. The macabre melodrama of Gaston Leroux’s original novel, coupled with the gaudy excesses of big budget 1980s musical theatre design, combine to tell a story that demands a huge stage, over the top performances and spectacle.
As The Phantom of the Opera returns to Her Majesty’s Theatre stage, there have been some changes. Maria Björnson’s original production design has been tweaked slightly, as has Gillian Lynne’s original choreography, although a casual eye would struggle to identify what has changed in that regard.
A more controversial change has seen the orchestra reduce in size (from 27 to 14) with electronic keyboards being relied upon more heavily. For those of us who sympathise with the hard-working musicians who now have no job to go back to after 18 months of shutdown, and who might wish that the reduction results in a diminution of sound, the fact that there’s not a huge difference in sound from an audience perspective is both infuriating and a huge relief.
The other big changes, albeit of a type which the show has experienced numerous times in its 36-year history, is in the casting of the leads. Much has been made of Lucy St. Louis being the first black woman to play Christine Daae in the West End or on Broadway. Such emphasis really only serves to highlight over three decades of capable, non-white actors being overlooked for the role. If St. Louis feels any responsibility on her shoulders, she wears it incredibly lightly: her Christine has a deft perceptiveness to her, portraying the shift from ensemble girl to leading actress well. Vocally, she also starts off with a more modern approach to her first big solo, Think of Me, placing a clear distance between Christine and Carlotta (Saori Oda), the diva she is replacing.
St. Louis quickly builds a rapport with Rhys Whitfield as her childhood friend and new love interest, Raoul. The Vicomte de Chagny is a largely anodyne role as written, and Whitfield works hard to elevate the character above that. While that struggle is rarely successful, it does at least mean that the pairing of Raoul and Christine is believable enough that one yearns to root for.
And that is a crucial factor in creating a successful Phantom, the character who poses a real threat to the young lovers’ relationship. Killian Donelly is strongest and most comfortable in the show’s earliest scenes, as a suave, reclusive benefactor who is mentoring Christine. His rendition of Music of the Night is beautiful, but as Erik loses his grip on sanity, Donnelly likewise fumbles his grip on character.
That said, the visual and aural spectacle remains outstanding throughout, although nothing – not even the famed chandelier drop, or the reveal of the entire ensemble onstage for Act II opening number Masquerade – quite matches the opening scene as the Opéra Populaire reconstructs itself as time runs backwards.
Indeed, that particular scene acts as such a powerful metaphor for the West End at this point in 2021, rebuilding in the shape of its former glories. On the strength of its slightly refreshed incarnation, this delicately reconstructed Phantom of the Opera looks set to be just as much a theatreland fixture as it was in its first three and a half decades.
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