Review by Tim Garratt
The Phantom of the Opera is a true juggernaut of musical theatre. Since its London premiere in 1986, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s take on Gaston Leroux’s Le Fantôme de L’Opéra has been seen by over 145 million people in 41 countries and translated into 17 languages. At home, few shows find as much favour with Australian audiences as Phantom, which has enjoyed several successful outings since its 1990 Melbourne debut (a run that lasted a staggering three years before transferring to Sydney.)
Sydney is now hosting its second full-scale production of Phantom to play the harbour city this year (Opera Australia picked musical theatre’s most revered ghost for its Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour production in April). And even before previews began in August for this latest iteration (by Cameron Mackintosh), almost all tickets had been snapped up. The evidence suggests our appetite for Phantom is far from waning.
The good news is that Mackintosh’s production (which opened last night at the Sydney Opera House’s Joan Sutherland Theatre) delivers precisely the kind of experience likely to ensure that audiences will continue to be enchanted by Phantom for some time to come.
Directed in Australia by Seth Sklar-Heyn, this production had its debut in the UK in 2012, before spending several years touring the US. Australia is only the third country to see this version, which features new staging and scenic design by Paul Brown but retains the stunning original costumes of Maria Björnson.
At the heart of Phantom is its superb score (music by Lloyd Webber, with lyrics by Charles Hart and additional lyrics by Richard Stilgoe). In this production, these iconic songs are wonderfully reproduced by a 27-piece orchestra, led by musical director Anthony Barnhill. It is immensely satisfying to hear each number performed by such a large contingent of players; each indelible melody is so richly brought to life. While some scores of the same era have failed to last the distance, Lloyd Webber’s work on Phantom remains among his strongest and is as affecting in 2022 as ever before.
When it comes to the cast, the news is just as positive. Josh Piterman plays the title character, returning to a role for which he received critical acclaim on London’s West End in 2019. It’s a winning performance; not only does Piterman have the tenor to confidently perform the challenging vocals, but he succeeds in portraying a multi-faceted Phantom. While he may be violent and villainous, this Phantom is also awkward and sympathetic – a product of his atrocious exclusion from civilised society. It is imperative that audiences feel the sympathy for the character that Piterman’s Phantom provokes.
As the talented ingenue Christine Daaé, Amy Manford is excellent. Like Piterman, she’s played her role overseas, and is now appearing as Daaé in Australia for the first time. She convinces as the Phantom’s naïve protege from the outset, and every note sung hits the mark – ‘Think of me’ is an early highlight, but it’s during Act II’s ‘Wishing you were somehow here again’ when Manford best showcases her remarkable soprano.
Blake Bowden is similarly an asset to this cast as Raoul, the dapper young nobleman, while Giuseppini Grech gives a standout performance as prima donna Carlotta, demonstrating a powerful soprano and great comedic timing. Paul Tabone is impeccably cast as Ubaldo Piangi, Jayde Westaby delivers as the mysterious Madame Giry, and Mietta White is a delightful Meg Giry. All in all, this is a first-class cast. The ensemble amply backs principal players in song and skilfully perform Scott Ambler’s terrific choreography.
While the scenic design deviates from what Björnson created for the original stage production, Brown’s sets locate us in 19th century Paris in a visual space that still feels a natural home for these characters. The production retains physical features we couldn’t imagine any version of Phantom without, because they’re so intrinsically linked to the show (the chandelier and the Phantom’s gondola) but, at the same time, the scenery distinctly differs from Björnson’s original sets. Importantly, the ‘magic’ of the original production remains.
This production of The Phantom of the Opera is a must-see for those able to get themselves to the Sydney Opera House in the coming weeks. Beautifully performed and staged, it is an impressive and absorbing presentation of a classic in the musical theatre canon. Some Sydneysiders may be reluctant to buy tickets given that their last chance to see Phantom came around only a few months ago. But if you’re a Phantom fan who was fortunate enough to catch Simon Phillips’ Sydney Harbour extravaganza, rest assured that this is an entirely different experience that makes returning to Phantom twice within a short time a worthwhile theatre splurge.
The Phantom of the Opera – season details:
Venue: Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Dates: Now playing until October 16, 2022
Tickets and information from www.phantomoftheopera.com.au