Phantom of the Opera review – an inventive and oversized Sydney Harbor spectacular | Musical comedies
You know the old adage about buses, right? You wait for one for ages, then two show up.
It’s been 14 years since the last production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera played in Sydney, when Anthony Warlow took over the title role that made him an international star. Now, in the space of a few months – thanks to the Covid – the city will welcome two in the space of six months.
Josh Piterman will stalk the Joan Sutherland Theater at the Sydney Opera House later this year in Australia’s first look at the refreshed Phantom which reopened in the West End in 2021.
But first, this one-of-a-kind oversized staging, directed by Simon Phillips and mounted on a massive pontoon anchored off the estate’s fleet steps, in front of an audience of up to 3,000 people per night.
A ghost in the open air? It doesn’t seem natural. It’s a drama of interiors – physical and psychological – and dark at that. How does a story that revels in the subterranean stand against a shimmering skyline? How lucky is a lake of dry ice in a harbor breeze? Where the hell is the suspension point of the swinging chandelier?
Most of the credit goes to designer Gabriela Tylesova for making Phantom work as well as it does. Its decor (a tower of Baroque theater boxes topped with a pointed beak of broken proscenium; a staircase sweeping backstage and descending) makes this oversized experience surprisingly intimate.
Phantom is a simple story, and often in the hands of actors in pairs or threes. Under Tylesova’s watch, on a stage more than twice the size of any indoor stage in Australia, nothing about the drama is made to look puny.
Phillips cast a mix of new and old stars. The leading trio – Joshua Robson (the Phantom), Georgina Hopson (Christine) and Callum Francis (Raoul) – make their Phantom debut. There are also notable veterans of the show. Leaving the Broadway production, Maree Johnson (Christine in the very first Sydney Phantom, succeeding Marina Prior) offers us her Madame Giry. Michael Cormick, who played Raoul in the West End for two and a half years, is Firmin.
Robson brings boundless energy and a booming voice to the title role. Stentorian when the melodrama is at its maximum (when, for example, he makes a grand entrance in a chariot suspended from one of the two tower cranes on the set), he is also adept at giving us the G-forces of roller coaster emotions. of the Phantom.
Hopson is an ideal match as Christine. His color, control and range are evident throughout. Raoul is quite easy to make dashing but Francis also captures his naivety and sensitivity.
Cormick and Martin Crewes are excellent value as theater directors Firmin and Andre. Soprano Naomi Johns is funny and vocally fabulous as the boisterous Carlotta and paired perfectly with Paul Tabone as comic tenor Ubaldo Piangi.
Tylesova’s costumes (big on bird feathers) are inventive and eye-catching. The 30 person set has a lot of ground to cover and although some of the exits and entrances seem heavy compared to those of a more conventional scale show, when they look this good you are happy to look at them.
The aforementioned tank descent seems a bit silly. The chandelier crash is probably the slowest I’ve ever seen. It’s huge but it lands softly, like a wounded UFO. A flurry of fireworks goes up, as if triggered by an electrical malfunction.
There’s no dry ice lake here, but a ring of fire looks fantastic, even if it puts the Phantom in Johnny Cash territory momentarily. But the climax of the piece, and the final act of the Phantom’s demise, missed a few beats on this occasion and needs polishing up.
Under the baton of Guy Simpson, the orchestra (which plays under the stage, out of sight) delivers the score with the ample sensation and the brassy colors that the traditional workforce of 27 musicians can generate. Chances are this will be the last time you hear it like this; the West End refresh of the show features a 14-player pit band, with woodwind, brass and fiddle parts delivered over digital keyboards.
Lloyd Webber was present during this opening night, on stage for the encore and delivered a small DJ set at the afterparty. He brought good weather fortune with him. Moody skies set everyone up for a dip at some point, but the rain stayed away until 10 minutes after the curtain was called.
Opera on the Harbor shows are designed to withstand a soak and only come to a halt at the worst. Make sure in this phase of La Niña that you are ready for anything.