The phrase that echoed around the Canberra Theatre Centre of Phantom’s opening night was “It’s good, for an amateur production.” While the sell-out crowd were receptive to the performance (there was a quarter of a standing-ovation), they were just as receptive as crowds tend to be on any other opening night. Perhaps the strengths of this production worked against it; the necessary complexity of bump-in meant that they only had three days in the theatre before preview (a common amateur theatre situation, but one that kept being used as an excuse, even in speeches by Somes and Harmon). Regardless, I enjoyed this musical. I didn’t love it, nor did I hate it. It simply happened, and I was there, and it was an important event for the community.
Let’s begin with what everybody has been talking about: the professionals. Let’s be honest for a second – they were good, but they were always going to be. It seems a little redundant to say that Michael Cormick and Julie Goodwin were stand-outs of this show... They’ve had the benefits that come with years of professional training, extensive experience with the material and, let’s call a spade a spade, professional abilities. Since it was first announced, the public have been bombarded with how excellent these two are. Which made them, unfortunately, victims of their own hype in performance. I’ll make no excuses, professionals are never critiqued worse than by amateur performers.
Michael Cormick’s Phantom was not overly Phantom-y. In terms of balance, for every excellent moment, there was an average one. More than anything, Cormick appeared to be the victim of his director. Overall, Cormick’s Phantom didn’t hold my attention. There were definite points at which he showed the abilities of his voice, but production week appeared to have taken its toll, particularly in Music of the Night, as there was the tell-tale growl and occasional cough from then on. Perhaps it is the over-hype I mentioned before, but while I enjoyed his performance, I expected more. As one person said to me in the foyer, “The Phantom wasn’t Phantom enough” – his presence wasn’t what it needed to be.
Julie Goodwin’s voice is stunning, and she fitted into the ballet chorus well. There was a believable friendship between her Christine and Tamina Koehne-Drube’s Meg Giry, which was delightful to watch, albeit at times in their duet (Angel of Music) Meg seemed less of a trusted friend, more of a dresser and awkward third wheel to the voice in Christine’s head. Goodwin’s acting, like Cormick’s, didn’t quite seem comfortable with the direction in places. There were moments where Christine appeared to know exactly what was going on, which is the opposite of her character’s reality. Christine is a pawn, first for the Phantom, then for Raoul, and appeared too strong for either man.
David Pearson’s voice is delightful. At times, though, it felt like he was Christine’s father, not her fiancée. His lower register is also noticeably louder than his higher, which made it seem that through All I Ask Of You, he was intermittently yelling in Christine’s face. His characterisation, however, was a new twist of the usually played vacuous and playful Raoul, providing a Raoul who was just as charming, dominating and often controlling as the Phantom himself. While not exactly melt-in-your-mouth sweet, Pearson’s Raoul was the first I’ve seen that I didn’t instinctively dislike for being whiney and self-entitled. I’m very glad Pearson’s back in town.
Christine Wallace’s Carlotta was vocally stunning. I don’t know who taught this woman to sing, but sign me up. Carlotta’s trills and operatic vocal runs were spot-on, and she never missed a note. Performance-wise, her non-singing moments could have used a touch more “diva”, and her costumes could have been credibly repulsively garish. Often, Carlotta was dressed in sepia tones, which left her looking a little washed out.
Ben O'Reilly’s Piangi (edited - this role was previously miscredited) left something to be desired. He missed many of his operatic notes in Hannibal and others, but an operatic tenor in Canberra is hard to find. More than that, there wasn’t really a Piangi character. He was Carlotta’s offsider, and left it there, missing many opportunities for physical and verbal comedy associated with being a leading man and still subject to a diva’s whims.
As the theatre owners, Tony Falla and Michael Moore were well cast. While still coming to terms with the intricate timings and lyrics of the Notes scenes, they presented the first real characters we see in the show. The pair showed an excellent contrast in two oft-similar characters, and at times they worked the stage better than Cormick and Goodwin.
Tamina Koehne-Drube has been becoming more and more prolific over the last two years, and Phantom gives us a chance to see why. She is delightfully graceful en pointe for the ballet chorus (although she would be more so if she put her shoulders back), clearly emotionally involved as a character, and her classical vocal training is paying dividends. While she had a few hard moments in her lower register, as well as some microphone issues, she was definitely one of the best performers onstage. The chemistry she had with not only Christine, but with Bronwyn Sullivan’s Madame Giry was apt and believable.
Sullivan’s strict ballet mistress, Madame Giry, was a well-acted and well-sung performance. While the production didn’t make as much of Giry’s ability to frighten respect from anybody she wished, be they dancer, crew or theatre manager, she nonetheless commanded attention and used her time onstage excellently.
Even the famous chandelier gave a perfectly balanced performance: the drama and excitement of its crash to the floor was balanced by jerky, awkward, inexplicable rising. The dramatic opening chords of the show were met by an almost painful stop-start ascension, with unnecessary pyrotechnics.
More than anything, I would say that the show was let down by its direction. David Harmon provides us with yet more balance issues, as for every moment of excellent direction, there are moments of awkwardness. Every director has to put their own spin on things, but The Phantom of the Opera (the Les Mis of Andrew Lloyd Webber “musicals”) has certain things that need to be done a certain way to be most effective. Free Rain’s production demonstrates why.
While there is understandably not much to be done with the minimal set, there were certain directorial decisions that left Cormick in odd places for certain moments. For example, the Phantom overheard the entirety of All I Ask Of You (sung on the roof of the Opera house) from his comfortable seat in Box Five which, logically, not only raises the question of how he physically heard any of what just happened, but why the police, when searching for the Phantom (a murder having just taken place and all), didn’t think to look in his favourite seat?
Similarly, Music of the Night is a slow, gradual build up of seductive power, which should make anybody who hears it crack a theatre-boner for the Phantom. The Phantom has rehearsed and rehearsed this moment for years, plotting his seduction of Christine, where he’ll stand, where he’ll put her when she faints etc. Every detail is measured and precise, for the ultimate theatrical gain. Cormick’s Phantom is all over the stage for this number, his body doing the work that his voice should be. There are only so many times we can believe that the Phantom can wave his hand over Christine’s head and she’ll pirouette. The clear planning of All I Ask of You is then supposed to provide a dramatic difference to Pandemonium, in which the Phantom’s plan has been ruined and he’s hurriedly, desperately ad-libbing a way to fix his problem (the kidnapping of Christine etc). Phantom seemed more prepared for this than anything else in the show.
Pandemonium also sees the threat of killing Raoul (a man who apparently thinks his eyes are at chin level, judging by where he held his hand, despite MANY warnings from the Giry women)... The Phantom pulls a rope, which lifts Raoul’s noose, choking him. Then, without any explanation, the Phantom lets go and walks around the stage, particularly to Christine, while Raoul hangs there, feebly fiddling with noose. As Phantom hasn’t tied the other end off on anything, there is no visible explanation as to why Raoul doesn’t just pull his end of the rope down and at least relieve his airway. Obviously, there are various knots and pulley mechanisms that can explain this, but I don’t think any production can rely on assumed knowledge in an audience.
Another confusing directorial decision was to have all of the Phantom’s asides boomed out into the theatre space and reacted to by the other actors. While this may seem logical as there are gaps in the script for them, it doesn’t really make sense to have the Phantom loudly announce his plans and then for the theatre managers and Raoul to continue as if nothing had happened.
During Il Muto, the ballet is performed facing the audience, and yet we can see a set of fly-ropes in the background. Either the Opera Populaire skimped on set, or the stage was an M.C. Escher design, in which the side of the stage is also at the back. Understandably, the corpse has to drop, and this drop has to be seen from the audience. This just shows why most productions choose to have the corpse drop into the middle of the ballet... So the audience, dancers and managers would all see it at once. Also, the dummy used as the corpse lacked human weight and therein bounced comically when it fell, like a rag-doll.
The ensemble, ballet corps and chorus members alike, sang wonderfully, but lacked any real characterisation. Oliver Baudert shone in his two initial characters, and then appeared to fade into the background (or at least out of my notice). He did, however, appear to have the only French accent in the production. If Les Mis has taught us anything, it’s that either you all do, or nobody does. Joe McGrail –Bateup’s frazzled director/conductor/repetiteur was also entertaining at times.
While this may be nit-picking, it is nit-picking from someone for whom The Phantom of the Opera was the first seen non-G&S musical. It is a passionate love of mine (and one of the two Andrew Lloyd Weber musicals I adore, although this is purely for the story). I feel that I missed a lot of the emotion and heart of the piece because I was too distracted by other things, particularly in the moments above. Those around me in the audience and foyer, I learned, suffered equally.
The design team, led by Cate Clelland and Fiona Leach, with help from Nick Valois, Steve Galinec, Anita Davenport and an army of others, did a tremendous job with what they had at their disposal. Galinec and Davenport’s mausoleum and theatre boxes not only looked the part, but stole the show (as far as non-moving, non-explosive components were concerned). Leach’s costumes were for the most part stunning, with occasional anachronisms that are unavoidable without a bigger budget.
Ian Maclean’s musical direction is superb, with excellent vocal coaching by Lloyd-Weber veteran Leisa Keen. The band, while over-amplified, played exceptionally and the company numbers sounded terrific.
In short, Free Rain’s Phantom was about balance. For every good moment, there were not-so-good moments, and the entirety of act one was upstaged by a falling lamp. While seeing Phantom with professional performers in the Canberra Theatre may be special, this production struggles to be anywhere near the standard to which it claimed. It was an excellent plan by Somes, and successful even before the cast reached the theatre.
I can only hope that the cast and company don’t try to rest of the laurels of selling out, considering they would have had every seat filled regardless of the show’s quality. A safe bet is a safe bet.
On a final, P.S-ish type note – there were flowers and gifts for the production team, Cormick and Goodwin. Most shows at least save that for closing night, and if you’re going to give the leads a present, you should probably give the rest of the cast one too. In a similar vein, I only saw leads at the post-show VIP function, and heard rumours that everyone else had been relegated to the green room...