2012 UK Tour - New Production (dir. Laurence Connor) - starring JOJ, Olivia Brereton (alt) & Simon Bailey

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2012 UK Tour - New Production (dir. Laurence Connor) - starring JOJ, Olivia Brereton (alt) & Simon Bailey

Post  Scorp on Sun May 27, 2012 9:32 pm

I don't usually post reviews here, but I made an exception this time since I know there's been a fair bit of curiosity concerning the first professional non-replica production to be seen in the UK (and which may...or may not...be seen in the US). I tried to avoid reading too much discussions of what had been changed before going so as to keep most things a surprise, so please forgive me if some of this sounds like old news. I was hoping that this tour would reinvigorate the piece, as my last visit to the Hal Prince original was on Broadway earlier this month, and that was a boring and tiresome experience from start to finish. Plus, yesterday was my fortieth time seeing the show, so I wanted it to be special.

So have Cameron Mackintosh and his darling Laurence Connor pulled it off? The answer is no. Sorry. Neutral

‘The creative team all hope that this new version of Phantom will aspire to the soaring heights of theatrical magic achieved by Hal Prince and Gillian Lynne’s brilliant original,’ writes Cameron Mackintosh in the souvenir brochure to the ‘new’ production of Phantom touring the UK. Unfortunately for them, and for us, it doesn’t come anywhere near close. Despite the excess of candles that float in the air, making the set look like Hogwarts rather than the Paris Opera House, this production doesn’t hold a candle to the original in any way, shape or form.

Even if you avoided comparisons altogether, the direction here is at turns so incompetent, awkward and unintelligent, and the set designs so amateurish, ugly and inappropriate, that it’s difficult to find much to praise about this production besides the strong cast and the basic material. I had originally hoped to draw up a list of things I liked and did not like about this show, or at least a list of elements that were superior and inferior to the original production, but there are so few things that are likeable/superior that the whole exercise would be redundant.

There is little to fault about the cast. John Owen-Jones and Simon Bailey deliver absolutely flawless performances as the Phantom and Raoul respectively, but that was to be expected on the basis of their time at Her Majesty’s. Bailey in particular is even stronger now than he was in the West End and has a stage presence that equals Owen-Jones’. How I wish that it had been these two leading the company at the Royal Albert Hall; it would have made for a much better evening. Olivia Brereton makes for a pleasant, young Christine who is definitely worth seeing, although she has yet to develop fully her confidence in the part. The supporting cast are all fine, and special mention should go to Angela Caesar, who injects the sort of much-needed humour into the role of Carlotta that Wendy Ferguson at the Royal Albert Hall completely lacked. Sadly she seemed to fade into the background in the second act, which is probably the fault of the direction more than anything else. These actors are streets and streets ahead of their Broadway counterparts, who delivered a performance so boring, tired and mechanical at the Majestic a few weeks ago that I actually fell asleep.

For all their efforts, though, the cast is hampered by completely thoughtless direction. I’m now convinced that the reason the 25th anniversary tour of Les Misérables was successful is because Laurence Connor basically cannibalised Trevor Nunn and John Caird’s original direction, as there was not much that was different. Here, though, presumably to avoid the same fall-out that Cameron Mackintosh had with Sir Trevor, Connor does not draw on Hal Prince’s original. This would be great if he were a visionary director in his own right, but the sad truth is that he’s second-rate at best and it shows.

Worst of all were ‘The Music of the Night’ and ‘Masquerade’, two key scenes. How could they it so wrong? The former has completely changed from a charged seduction to a stale lecture on music that bores the audience as much as it does Christine (it is presumably because she finds it so yawnworthy that she climbs into bed and goes to sleep of her own accord towards the end of the song – there is no fainting of any kind). Owen-Jones sings it beautifully, but the blocking is one faux pas after another. When he sings ‘Close your eyes…’, the direction literalises the lyric, such that he actually blindfolds Christine for no apparent reason, before removing it. It’s almost surprising that they didn’t make the Phantom perform trepanning surgery on Christine when he sings ‘Open up your mind’. The effect is awkward and embarrassing – the blindfold moment made me laugh out loud. ‘Masquerade’ shows no understanding of the function of the scene. Taking out the staircase is like removing the chandelier; the masked ball and the staircase have been intertwined as an indelible image since Leroux’s original novel. There is no atmosphere of danger, menace or threatening shadows. It is just one happy sing-song. What should be presented as Dionysian, chaotic and spontaneous, which is what the masked balls at the Opéra were in the 19th century, it is unjustifiably choreographed with Christine even being lifted up by a train of dancers in an anachronistic way that is not in-keeping with the fin-de-siècle milieu. The fact that the majority of the costumes in this scene have been butchered beyond recognition didn’t help, and nor did it fit with the lyrics describing a wide array of colours that don’t appear on stage.

‘Why so silent?’ was completely botched. The crowd splits in two to prepare for the Phantom’s entrance, which is heralded rather than unexpected. When he enters, it’s impossible not to laugh again. There is nothing terrifying or remotely threatening about him in this scene. He arrives dressed looking Napoleon, in a costume bearing no relation to the Red Death of Poe, Leroux, the Lon Chaney film or Maria Björnson’s original, which, though slightly over-the-top, is at least fittingly grotesque and plausibly terrifying. He looks so normal and innocuous in this version that it is puzzling first of all why the crowd even knows he’s the Phantom, and secondly why they don’t just invite him to join in with the festivities. His exit is similarly pathetic. He merely returns to the door through which he entered and leaves; his one ‘trick’ is to produce a small fireball to scare people (what wimps) and then he walks off at such a slow pace that it’s surprising that nobody bothers to accost or arrest him. Speaking of fireballs, this trick is repeated so often that it ultimately gets tiring and predictable and makes the Phantom look like some kind of bizarre pyromaniac. They even have fire emanate from the magic piano in the ‘Don Juan’ rehearsal scene for no reason other than they must have thought it looked cool. But back to the Red Death: at least in the original it was obvious that the others were powerless against him – something that has been forgotten here, since Connor has also made the mistake of situating the Phantom on the same level as the rest of the cast in key scenes like ‘Wandering Child’, which robs of him of his aura of omnipotence that you get from having him positioned high up and out of reach. Because he is on ground level, at one point Raoul is even able to approach the Phantom and pin him to the wall. Why doesn’t he just finish the job? Even the staging of Joseph Buquet’s death is not frightening despite it being shown in front of us, partly because the Phantom and Buquet are on the same level. Perhaps some ideas from the Las Vegas production, with the action happening on a ramp above the stage, should have been incorporated.

Speaking of not the visuals not matching the lyrics, another instance was the first series of scenes in the lair, which is cluttered with such odd bricabrac that I’m not sure what half of it was supposed to be. The lair looks tiny to start with and is filled with very strange objects. What on earth is that weird golden hatstand-cum-palm tree at the back? It bothered me as I kept trying to work out what on earth it was. It’s as if Paul Brown stumbled across someone’s attic and just shoved all the junk he found on stage (same case with the auction). Anyway, Christine wakes up and talks of ‘swirling mist upon a vast glassy lake’. Hardly that vast. It’s not even clear where the lake is. The boat is used for all of two seconds and in the second act the lake doesn’t appear at all – in fact, Raoul is capable of standing on where it was in Act 2, so maybe he’s Jesus. It also makes little sense to accuse Christine of being a ‘prying pandora’ when it’s the Phantom’s own fault for deciding to unmask himself in the same room as her.

Other thoughtless decisions included the setting of ‘Angel of Music’ in a communal dressing room for the corps de ballet. Exactly how would the Phantom and Christine enjoy any kind of privacy in this busy room to have music lessons? Additionally, Christine stupidly relates the secret of her tuition to Meg in a room full of fellow ballerinas who can overhear her perfectly. Where has the sense of hushed voices and mystery gone? Paule Constable’s lighting is also a bit to blame for this – so far every production where she’s designed the lighting, I’ve been really impressed by it. Not here. The lighting is unsubtle and unatmospheric. There’s nothing special about it and it does not achieve the effect of gloom, menace and chiaroscuro that this production needs.

The design for the managers’ office is impractical and cramped, set inside the revolving drum with doors that open out like a doll’s house. The effect means that were you sat to the side of the stage, for example in one of the boxes, you would not see a single thing in the scene, which is all set inside the drum. It also means that the blocking is awkwardly restricted and cramped to the middle of the stage – a great deal of space is wasted. Although the staging of the title song has received praise from other theatregoers, it completely pales in comparison to the majestic beauty of the original. There is little gained in having the Phantom and Christine visible the entire time, and in fact much is lost because, in order to allow the Phantom and Christine to have enough time to reach the top of the drum, the score is altered so that Raoul’s lines (‘Whose is that voice? Who is that in there?’) come after Christine has disappeared through the mirror and are followed by an extremely long pause that the orchestra fills by continually pausing over the D minor chord that begins the title song. As a result, the segue from ‘The Mirror’ to the title song and its pulsating momentum is completely ruined. In the title song, the first two verses are awkward as the Phantom and Christine barely move and just keep switching places at the top of this drum in a confined space. It isn’t until the third verse that they actually descend the steps surrounded by the tacky-looking Hogwarts candles. The resultant lack of movement contradicts the forceful energy of the title song, which was captured so perfectly in the original with the windswept zigzagging of the Phantom and Christine into the depths of the theatre.

Too often there is no sense of locale. Frequently the stage is left entirely bare following the drum’s revolve, and so it is not clear where scenes like ‘Prima Donna’ are set. It looks like the sewers, for heaven’s sake. Before ‘Masquerade’ begins, the managers appear to be on the stage of the opera house, surrounded as they are by the boxes of the theatre. They stand before what is apparently the stage curtain, which lifts up, only to reveal – inexplicably – the opera house’s rotunda behind it. Why would the rotunda be on the stage of the opera house? When set pieces are used, they look cheap, tacky and unfinished. I’m thinking particularly of the single cross in the Perros graveyard in Act 2 and the statue of Apollo’s Lyre during ‘All I Ask of You’. Both look like they haven’t been completed, since they lack colour and detail. In particular, ‘Apollo’s Lyre’, while a nice nod to Leroux’s novel, in which this scene is set in the same place, and to the architecture of the Palais Garnier, looks like a cartoonised, caricatural transposition of the real statue. Even the Hungarian non-replica production’s version of Apollo’s Lyre looked classier and more realistic than this disappointing set piece. For some strange reason, Christine’s line addressed to Raoul that they should go to the roof has been omitted, so there’s no reason given as to why Christine and Raoul have gone all the way up there to escape the drama happening in the auditorium. There’s nothing to suggest to the audience that they’re on the roof either besides the statue of Apollo’s Lyre – which I imagine most audience members would not realise is on the roof of the Paris Opera House – and some falling snow (to accommodate the snow, Act 2 is set twelve months, rather than six months later; I was relieved at least to see that they had thought about this change, since leaving it alone would mean that it would be snowing in the middle of summertime). Paul Brown has not even bothered to provide a backdrop of the Paris skyline to show what can be seen from the roof – such is the extent of the shortcuts used in this production. Connor’s claim in the souvenir brochure that this production is ‘every bit as opulent’ as the original is laughable. Lloyd Webber likes to quote Hal Prince telling him (after Jeeves flopped) that “you can’t listen to music if you can’t look at it”. Well, that would apply here to this production. You can’t look at it.

Most of the audience could be heard expressing disappointment over the chandelier, which is not surprising given how iconic the original effect was. I don’t want to dwell too much over it, but you would have thought they could at least make the chandelier look like the one in the Palais Garnier given that the logo for this production and all the promotional imagery uses pictures of the real chandelier. Although both the (non)-rise and (non)-fall of the chandelier were underwhelming and anti-climactic, I did like how the effect of it ‘crashing’ is at least suggested by having the rococo horizontal panel that hangs at the top of proscenium fall out of place, as though it had been damaged by the fall of the chandelier. The staging of the overture is of course a damp squib, but credit to the production team should be given for at least trying to stage something so the audience has something to look at. Here, we have Raoul surrounded by fragments of his memories who gradually come to life. Unfortunately, though, it doesn’t really make any sense, because the ‘memories’ turn out to be the scene of the rehearsal for ‘Hannibal’, and he’s never there for that scene, so he wouldn’t remember it. (Incidentally, he doesn’t seem to have much of a relationship with the managers, not even sitting in their box at the gala night).

The mock operas are pretty much played as before, although in Don Juan Triumphant we have a very awkward moment when Christine decides to dance on the table. It doesn’t work. It's also never clear if/when Christine realises it's the Phantom. One nice addition though that I did like is that Raoul cries out: ‘Stop him!’, just after Christine removes the hood from the Phantom. Having the Phantom in his shirtsleeves with his top buttons undone and all of this showing beneath the hood in ‘Point of No Return’ made the production look like a large-scale school production from the US, especially given the cheapness of some of the props, such as the swords in ‘Hannibal’. The deformity, though perhaps more realistic than Chris Tucker’s original, is very difficult to see unless you are sitting extremely close to it, as it lacks any shading. The whole reason the original is so over the top is that it needs to be seen by everyone in the theatre – in this production, it was impossible to see how the Phantom was deformed from where I was sitting. So ‘Don Juan’ and many other scenes are ruined by the sheer tackiness of the costumes, whose cheap looks are distracting. It is completely unethical and unacceptable for the production to advertise these costumes as Maria Björnson’s when they have been altered for the worse. This is especially galling considering that the brochure quotes Cameron as saying that ‘Maria still remains at the heart’ of this production. Virtually all her beautiful costumes have been butchered with no regard to how the alterations destroy her vision, and the result is an eyesore since all of them have been made significantly worse.

There are a couple of minor changes to the libretto beyond those I’ve already mentioned. One change that I did like was an extra line for Carlotta when she’s about to perform ‘Think of Me’ for the new managers. When Reyer begins to play the opening bars on the piano, she tells him in Italian that he is playing far too fast for her liking and should slow it down. I liked this as it showed Carlotta’s self-knowledge in playing to her strengths and gave her a bit of extra diva attitude. The query whether Christine is related to Daaé the violinist is now asked directly to her face by André just before she performs ‘Think of Me’ after Carlotta has stormed out. Placing the line here is a good choice because the line is likely to pass the audience by where it is in the original. For some reason one of the Phantom’s lines (‘Let the audience in’) just before the ‘Don Juan’ première is absent; I can’t fathom what the point of omitting it was. Two random gestures I liked in this production: the Phantom holds his score to his heart as he sings his final lines. Christine drops the rose Raoul gives her when she goes through the mirror, leaving Raoul to find it there dropped with no sign of Christine, which makes it look fittingly like a crime scene. There is new exit music which uses ‘Masquerade’ as its opening theme rather than ‘Wishing’. I think I preferred the original exit music from what I heard, but it’s not a big deal.

If this goes to the States as the Les Mis tour did, I can’t see it being well received. The Phantom tour ran for nearly two decades in the States and visited the same cities over and over again. It will be fresh in people’s minds, not least because the sit-down Broadway production is still running. The comparisons will not be favourable: this I can guarantee. There aren’t even any new ‘wow’ moments as the Miz 25th tour offered, as with Javert’s suicide.

I’m not averse by any means to a new production of Phantom (while I adore Hal Prince, and thought his production of Evita was a formidable achievement, I welcomed Michael Grandage's reinvention of that show), but in terms of quality, this is like going from the Ritz to a rundown youth hostel, which I would call a rat-infested one were it not for this exceptionally strong cast giving it their all. Without them, this wouldn’t have earned a standing ovation, which was clearly for the performers and the piece, and not for the production. I heard unfavourable comparisons being made on the way out, and they weren’t unjustified. While I don’t think the Prince/Björnson original is likely to be topped, I do think the piece is strong enough to allow for a different interpretation, but the one offered here is pathetically weak and confused. If we had a first-rate director, a designer who conceived new sets and brand new costumes rather than having the originals significantly watered down and the same kind of thought and intelligence and respect for the Phantom’s heritage put into a new production, it could be great. But this is an example of just how much work has to be put in to overcome the spectre of the original, which isn’t going to fade from anyone’s memories any time soon. I can’t give this more than a 3 out of 5, and those stars go to: a) the cast; b) the material; and c) the fact that, contrary to my fears based on the Royal Albert Hall event, nothing here was in any way influenced by or retrofitted to Love Never Dies. For that I am least grateful.

This production is best summed up as ‘Cameron Mackintosh takes a leaf out of Bill Kenwright’s book’. Had this opened at Her Majesty's Theatre 25 years ago, I don't think the show would have had anywhere near the success it has had.

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Re: 2012 UK Tour - New Production (dir. Laurence Connor) - starring JOJ, Olivia Brereton (alt) & Simon Bailey

Post  MajesticPhantom on Mon May 28, 2012 1:14 am

Scorp, thank you so much for your review, which really engages with theatrical practices and dramaturgy in a way that I think is important to uphold standards in the theatre.

I would urge those of you who have seen the production to write up to newspapers in the cities of the tour to mention the shift in Bjornson's work being altered without official mention. I think it is very important to uphold her standards, and not let them be misrepresented. Some may think it's over the top, but it is not... She did very, very important work in the theatre that aimed to ensnare the senses and the intellect, and deserves respect.

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Re: 2012 UK Tour - New Production (dir. Laurence Connor) - starring JOJ, Olivia Brereton (alt) & Simon Bailey

Post  SenorSwanky on Mon May 28, 2012 4:09 am

Scorp wrote:the Phantom holds his score to his heart as he sings his final lines.
I always imagined myself doing this if I played the role, but then letting the score flutter to the stage as I deliver the final note. Interesting JOJ had a similar idea.

If this goes to the States as the Les Mis tour did, I can’t see it being well received. The Phantom tour ran for nearly two decades in the States and visited the same cities over and over again. It will be fresh in people’s minds, not least because the sit-down Broadway production is still running. The comparisons will not be favourable: this I can guarantee. There aren’t even any new ‘wow’ moments as the Miz 25th tour offered, as with Javert’s suicide.
I'm pretty sure you're right. I'm glad I gave the Les Mis tour a shot because I ended up liking the new staging, and it had a dynamic cast. But I can't imagine enjoying something so offensive to the show I've loved for over 20 years, whose staging is integral to its success.

contrary to my fears based on the Royal Albert Hall event, nothing here was in any way influenced by or retrofitted to Love Never Dies.
Other than the Phantom's wig and mask.

I think it'll be several decades before we get a worthy reinvention of this show. It'll have to be some time after the original closes in London and NY.

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Re: 2012 UK Tour - New Production (dir. Laurence Connor) - starring JOJ, Olivia Brereton (alt) & Simon Bailey

Post  operafantomet on Mon May 28, 2012 5:29 am

When he sings ‘Close your eyes…’, the direction literalises the lyric, such that he actually blindfolds Christine for no apparent reason, before removing it. It’s almost surprising that they didn’t make the Phantom perform trepanning surgery on Christine when he sings ‘Open up your mind’.
Laughing Laughing

Thank you for a great in-depth review, especially on the technical and directional aspects. So sorry it turned out to be a disappointment, seeing you went in there with a fairly open mind. But interesting that you comment on the cast being the big attraction. I've kept half an eye on the UK tour Facebook page these last couple of months, and whereas all rave about the cast (the word "amazing" being mandatory), few comment on the look of the production:

What a great show! Saw it last night at Bristol Hippodrome and had a brilliant time! You get truly pulled into the story. The voices were amazing. Loved it!
Saw phantom yesterday at the Bristol hippodrome. it was amazing this is the first time i have seen it and really want to see it again :] what an amazing cast!!!!!!!!!!!!
Saw the show in Manchester on 5th May - fabulous! John Owen-Jones was amazing as the Phantom - best voice I have EVER heard!!!
saw it on Wednesday- amazing production,John owen Jones is incredible. I was actually in tears after the finale it was such a strong performance. had to book to see it again!

It probably means they liked the whole thing. But with the original the audience seems to have been so affected by the visuals that they comment upon them, and especially when the visuals has been topped by a stellar cast. Compare to "newbie" comments on the South African Phantom site:

Spectacular - beyond imagination. Amazing show - loved every moment, the music, the special effects, the costumes. Definately a must see - understand now the showtime was extended twice already. This performance proof why it is the most watched musical.
Saw it last night and I was speechless!!!!!! The show was flippen fantastic, well done to the cast and everyone else who helped it all come together. The beginning with the chandelier and the end with the mask only remaining on the seat were my best parts!!!! Blew me away completely.
The music was majestic, the acting was impeccable and don't even get me started on the costumes, lighting, sound... everything! The run in Joburg has been extended to the 20th of May. If you can get a seat do it! If it is the back row and you have to sit next to an obese man who drools - do it!
I went to watch The Phantom of the Opera with a friend of mine last Sunday and it was absolutely spectacular! The cast, costumes and sets were beautiful to watch but I have to admit, Jonathan Roxmouth (the Phantom) stole the show with his amazing voice! Such power and control - definitely worth the standing ovation at the end Smile

The South African theatregoers comments on the whole production - on the sets, costumes, dancing, orchestra, story AND cast. This is rarely the case in the UK tour site. Some mention to the new special tricks, and a handful on the overall production aesthetics, but in general it's about John Owen Jones and the rest of the cast. And as Scorp wrote, what will happen if/when the UK tour version gets a poorer cast?

Again, thank you for an interesting in-depth review. It seems like you address some of the key problems of the new staging. I must read it again to get the full grasp of it.

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Re: 2012 UK Tour - New Production (dir. Laurence Connor) - starring JOJ, Olivia Brereton (alt) & Simon Bailey

Post  Raphael on Mon May 28, 2012 3:49 pm

Thanks for the review, Scorp. All in all, it sounds very disturbing and disappointing.

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Re: 2012 UK Tour - New Production (dir. Laurence Connor) - starring JOJ, Olivia Brereton (alt) & Simon Bailey

Post  NightRachel on Tue May 29, 2012 12:35 am

Raphael wrote:Thanks for the review, Scorp. All in all, it sounds very disturbing and disappointing.

R.

Yeah, my thoughts exactly.
And yes, thank you, Scorp, for posting your review...it was very interesting to read.

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Re: 2012 UK Tour - New Production (dir. Laurence Connor) - starring JOJ, Olivia Brereton (alt) & Simon Bailey

Post  ML6 on Wed May 30, 2012 4:50 pm

I adored this review. It made me laugh, but also feel bad because I seriously don't want this to come over here.

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Re: 2012 UK Tour - New Production (dir. Laurence Connor) - starring JOJ, Olivia Brereton (alt) & Simon Bailey

Post  Riene on Fri Jun 01, 2012 4:46 pm

This sounds dreadful--a boring and cheaply-made production. Do you think they were merely trying to save a few dollars in the budget for scenery, costumes, props, etc?

Thanks for the excellent review!

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Re: 2012 UK Tour - New Production (dir. Laurence Connor) - starring JOJ, Olivia Brereton (alt) & Simon Bailey

Post  PhantomsGhost on Fri Jun 01, 2012 7:42 pm

Thanks for this review, Scorp.

I'm very curious to see this, now. Hopefully it will come to the States. I want to see how bad it is going to be. (lol)


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Re: 2012 UK Tour - New Production (dir. Laurence Connor) - starring JOJ, Olivia Brereton (alt) & Simon Bailey

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