The Phantom of the Opera

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13-23 June, Waipawa Municipal Theatre
By Rosheen FitzGerald

This is not my first rodeo with the Phantom. I saw it on the West End, in an ornate Victorian opera house. I also caught it on tour, which, when it came to my town, sparked such a flurry of Phantom fever that I was privy to my next-door neighbour singing the opening phrase of All I Ask of You in the shower through the paper-thin party wall. Of course, I couldn’t help myself, and chimed in with Sarah Brightman’s part, to resounding shrieks.

It’s an ambitious production with big boots to fill, but Waipawa’s Musical and Dramatic Club’s reputation precedes it. Thankfully, the not-insignificant drive into the heart of Central Hawke’s Bay on a blustery winter’s night was well rewarded, with an evening of entertainment that easily equalled previous experiences.

The auditorium is transformed by returned hero, John Harding, who has racked up a stack of design credits and awards since leaving CHB, including for The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and Avatar. To the traditional proscenium, he’s added a thrust with steps leading up to boxes on either side and a steep staircase that can be revealed or concealed upstage as the drama dictates. Action taking place on so many levels, including the balcony above, makes for a dynamic experience, even before the bells and whistles of the set design are revealed. Of these – stories-high frame (by turns gilded and gothic), candles rising from and sinking into the perimeter of the stage, trapdoor into whose gloomy confines characters descend, gondola gliding across misty lake, wrought metal bars of the Phantom’s dank abode, Chekhov’s chandelier (which by its very presence is doomed to fall) – it’s only the obelisk tombstone protruding for the duration of Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again that feels surplus to requirements. It is a mark of the quality of the performances that they are enhanced, not overshadowed by such world-class mise-en-scene.

The fact that every one of the lead cast is not only in possession of singularly fine vocal skills, but is an accomplished character actor, sparks a certain pride in the talent brewing down in Central Hawke’s Bay. They are supported by an able ensemble who, together with the polished chamber orchestra, provides a luxuriously rich musical backdrop. They also form eye-catching tableaux, most strikingly in the masquerade scene, where stunningly crafted animalistic head pieces create a menacing bacchanal. Comedic pairs – business partners, Firmin and Andre; and falling stars, Piangi, and the wonderfully expressive Carlotta – bring much needed light and laughter to an otherwise grim dark tale, particularly in the letter reading scenes, where they sing at sonorous counterpoint.

Any compunctions I may have had about Elijah Graham looking no more than his mere nineteen years were dispelled as soon as he opened his mouth and became Raoul. Cindy O’Sullivan gives Sarah Brightman a run for her money, with her graceful depiction of Christine which is tender without ever being weak. Sam Draper’s Phantom is the greatest departure from Lloyd Webber’s original direction, and, to my (over twenty-year-old) memory, what makes this a non-replica production. With slicked back hair, winklepickers, trailing lace cuffs, and long tapered fingers ending in black grasping nails, he embodies the aesthetic and the spirit of Nick Cave – which is fitting as the rest of the costuming is straight from the wheelhouse of The Vampire’s Wife. The creepily coercive sexual chemistry between the Phantom and Christine is toe-curlingly palpable, and drives the plot. His longing, sadness and rage imbue his song and makes the part his own, offering a deeply affecting, but very different performance to Michael Crawford’s.

It’s a tale as old as time, but in the age of #MeToo – in which women have documented cases of sexual coercion in return for career advancement –  and the incel rebellion – where men have lashed out with violence against a society that “denies” them sex – strangely relevant. There’s certainly plenty about the Phantom of the Opera in general and this production in particular that keeps audiences coming back – I might even make the trip again before the run is out!

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