The Phantom of the OperaIrony and melodrama make for poor bedfellows in this latest production of a musical theatre classic.

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of The Opera is the highest grossing entertainment event of all time. With ticket sales for the current Sydney production already topping $11 million just a week into the run, the only thing bigger than the show’s pocket-book has been its hype, with posters plastering the city for months alerting us that ‘The Phantom Is Coming’. Whether this was a threat or a promise however is at last to be revealed, as Lloyd Webber’s most popular musical plays to Sydney audiences for the first time in eleven years, and Star City’s Lyric Theatre opens its doors to a whole new generation of Phanatics.

Originally staged in 1986, Phantom is very much a product of its time: a study in sheer and shamelessly decadent excess. Everything about the show is super-sized, from its half-tonne chandelier to its hairstyles, and the rather earnest intensity of it all is best viewed and rendered with the same straight faces, oversized spectacles and high-waisted convictions of this misguided decade. This production however - faced with the very real challenge of bringing new life to a fossilized classic - chooses to introduce an unfamiliar and distinctly contemporary element of irony into proceedings, with less than successful results. While there are few contexts not redeemed or heightened by some judiciously deployed irony, it seems the theatrical equivalent of trying to have your cake and eat it to camp up an (already fairly outrageous) story to the limit, and still expect your audience to be bowled over by the emotional intensity of it all. By overplaying the shriekingly girlish chorus of dancers (who spend an excessive amount of time prancing about the stage looking anxious without apparent purpose), the pompous blunderings of the good-natured managers, and the histrionic affectations of the Italian opera stars, the unremittingly obvious direction also robs the tragic central love-story of both credibility and impact.

Respect and admiration are however due to the cast’s two central men - Anthony Warlow as the Phantom, and Alexander Lewis as Raoul - who share the difficult task of animating the emotional and moral poles of the story, and of bringing human and layered life to a potentially rather reductive polarity. It says much for Charles Hart’s nuanced lyrics as well as Lloyd Webber’s seductive melody-writing skills that there is a genuine difficulty identifying Phantom’s true romantic hero. Warlow does much to add to this confusion in the painful vulnerability and volatile extremes that he brings to a character whose initial self-assured seduction and bombast is so entirely stripped away in the disturbing final scenes. His faltering solo reprise of the love-duet ‘All I Ask of You’ was especially poignant, and highlighted the internal contradictions of a character whose next appearance sees him (quite literally) returning to the assertive Don Juan role.

The hero-by-numbers part of Raoul is always a difficult one and fairly thankless dramatically. Although much less challenging vocally than the role of the Phantom, the character’s bland patrician predictability often struggles to compete with the complex psychotic layers and charisma of his bad-boy rival. Lewis however - assisted both by his deliciously smooth high-baritone voice and undeniable physical charms - gave Warlow a run for his money, bringing some youthful sincerity and energy to a role which was sadly not substantial enough to showcase his full range of skill.

Sadly Ana Marina as heroine Christine Daae failed to equal her co-stars either vocally or in terms of dramatic conviction. While possessing a surprisingly mellow and rich chest voice (showcased in both ‘Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again’ and ‘Past The Point of No Return') she tended to over-blow in the upper registers, leading to some rather frenzied vibrato and to the rather distracting contortion of basic vowel sounds. Her acting was similarly over-blown, with a tendency to default to a dramatic monotone of wide-eyed anxiety. Only in the pulsingly tango-driven ‘Past The Point of No Return’ with its implicitly sexual lyrics and rather more explicitly sexual gestures did she really seem - alas too late - to commit dramatically.

It would be misguided to demand more from Phantom than it intends to give; the show is not - nor does it ever pretend to be - opera, yet it does not seem unduly churlish to hold it to the avowed aim of all musical theatre: to provide a great night of entertainment. Done well, this is precisely what Phantom achieves with its heady blend of suspense, spectacle and seduction, yet misjudge just one of its essential components and the balance of this consciously and precisely overloaded drama becomes distinctly precarious. 

Producer and West End power-player Cameron Mackintosh has described Phantom as ‘…a good old-fashioned, highly theatrical, musical romance’, highlighting this classic show’s overwhelming strengths but also its essential flaw. Murder, disfigurement, psychosis, attempted rape - this is hardly the stuff of feel-good family viewing or PG romance, yet in Lloyd Webber’s hands these necessarily uncomfortable and provocative themes become as blandly palatable as his melodies. For theatrical melodrama to be truly successful, the ammunition - both literal and emotional - has to be as live as the onstage action, something that the gilded and gently ironic world of this latest Phantom with its comfortably padded half-truths and elegantly masked horrors never quite achieves.

The Phantom of the Opera
Andrew Lloyd Webber

Venue: Lyric Theatre | Star City, Sydney
Dates: From 11 May 2008
Times: Tuesdays - Saturdays 8pm
Matinees: Wednesdays @ 1pm; Saturdays @ 2pm; Sundays @ 3pm
Bookings: Ticketmaster 1300 795 267 |

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