Friday 31st May 2013
We wonder if Gaston Leroux would be gratified to know that he created such a popular literary character in the Phantom of the Opera, spawning many different adaptations in so many different forms, or whether he would have been more than a little miffed that so many of these adaptations came with a overwhelming desire to tinker with the original plot. Or perhaps he wondered why some of his other titles didn’t achieve such popularity, titles such as ‘The Haunted Chair’ or ‘The Burgled Heart’. However flawed the plot may be, there are certainly some enduring themes in the story: unrequited love, the dichotomy between physical ugliness and spiritual beauty, alienation from society and the desire to escape.
It shouldn’t surprise us that there are three musical versions of the story, including this UK premiere of Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit’s version presented by Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre pub. This show has a long history – Yeston and Kopit began work on the story before Andrew Lloyd Webber, shelving it when the Lord’s production became successful in London, only to revisit their work when they realised that their version was almost unrecognisable. We would certainly agree with that. Here we have a genuine attempt to flesh out the character of Erik, the phantom, making him simultaneously more human and complex and ultimately more disturbing. More time is spent on the back story of Erik, and on the social context and relationships. By contrast, Andrew Lloyd Webber frequently refers to his ‘Phantom of the Opera’ as ‘high romance’, resulting in a romanticised and sanitised version.
It is also worth noting that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical has some memorable tunes and dramatic set pieces which make it entertaining even if they don’t quite hang together. Yeston and Kopit do something much more subtle musically. The music flows through the action and although there is dialogue, music is never far away. We first see Christine Daae busking on the streets of Paris (‘Melodie de Paris’), immediately establishing her singing ability and popularity, as well as her passion for music. Her ‘debut’ as an opera singer takes places in a Bistro in the form of a ‘sing-off’ between herself and other members of the company (‘Sing, you can sing’), and her music lessons with the Phantom start with everyday vocal exercises which turn into a duet, and become the vehicle for showing the bond they develop through music. The chorus have a significant part to play, especially in ‘The Story of Erik’. Some of the musical numbers are less successful, but the sense that music is the medium in which the Phantom moves and understands the world is always there.
We never cease to be amazed at the ambition and resourcefulness of ‘All Star Productions’, the resident company at Ye Olde Rose and Crown. This is a venue so tiny that the house lights are turned off with one flick of a domestic light switch and yet they never shy away from giving us fully staged productions of musical theatre gems. This is a complex story with a large cast told very effectively by Director Dawn Kalani Cowle, with a tightly marshalled ensemble. Overall the musical standard was fantastic, thanks to an excellent cast working under Aaron Clingham’s musical direction. Having said all that the success of this production would always stand or fall on the quality of the two leads, and here we have outstanding performances which give this production real emotional credibility. Kira Morsley is able to project simple innocence combined with the resilience and passion of youth, and her voice is as enchanting as the Phantom says it is! With the help of Kopit’s book, her Christine is far from being a passive victim, and her act of compassion at the end is believable and moving. Kieran Brown delivers a charismatic performance, vocally powerful when it needs to be, but also with warmth and subtlety, creating a rounded character we can care about, at whose actions we are all the more horrified. There is strong support from Pippa Winslow as Carlotta, who relishes her comic moments, and the darker qualities of the character, whilst showing that she too can hit the high notes when she needs to.
We’ve said before that the it is the fringe venues rather than the West End which seem to be leading the way when it comes to real quality and range of musical theatre, and here we have further proof.