Wikipedia tells us that the Phantom of the Opera’s occupations include “maestro, impresario, architect, illusionist, ventriloquist and contractor”. Contractor? Still, this is probably a good thing as the Phantom must have needed to draw all on his resourcefulness to build his underground lair, not to mention bewitching young chanteuses, writing brilliant operas and rigging up the Paris Opera House with more incendiaries than a firework’s display.
The genius of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s long-running musical is that it’s set in a theatre. From the enthralling opening gambit of a chandelier with a life of its own to characters emerging from the audience, it’s never clear exactly where the fourth wall stops. If the Phantom has a habit of frequenting – nay, haunting – old theatres then what are we to make of our surroundings in the grand old Liverpool Empire?
The theatrical setting also allows for a number of levels of entertainment. There’s some operetta, musical theatre, out-and-out thesping and some stunning vocal, dance and musical work to enjoy. But this new tour has a genuinely jaw-dropping stage set that dominates the theatre – it’s equal parts gothic theatre, Universal creature feature and modern-day David Copperfield spectacular. Along with the sumptuous costumery it ensures that things never look less than beautiful on-stage; indeed, the drama of the sets’ movement, form and intrinsic cleverness is a joy in itself.
In the middle of these stunning sets are a varied and voluminous cast of players – and here there’s another quirk of fate that seems to elevate proceedings. The lead actor Earl Carpenter has had to drop out – so too his understudy – meaning that John Owen-Jones, who has racked up over 2,000 performances as the titular lunatic, has stepped in at the last minute. This is received with rapturous applause but it could also be a theatrical twist worthy of the masked enigma himself.
Owen-Jones is well supported by the rest of the cast, but he is undoubtedly the star of the performance. His vocal range encompasses everything from the booming to the breathy, this latter style apt for the often-synthy, somewhat 80s vibe to the music. The Phantom theme is a right piece of campy nonsense and no mistake – arguably fitting, given the show as a whole – but Music Of The Night is oddly touching and Masquerade catchy. Lloyd Webber can certainly concoct a memorable tune – even if he is responsible for some of the worst music ever created (lest I mention Cats).
Few other characters amount to anything beyond simple ciphers, but Katie Hall as Christine shows off an impressive range and some startling vocal power, while Angela M Caesar as Carlotta has some amusing moments. It’s only the Phantom that gets much motivation here, however, and Owen-Jones imbues him with fury, venom and pathos even while masked, hatted and cloaked with the skill of his vocal performance.
With a performance time of close to 150 minutes this is potentially bum-numbing stuff but things rarely sag, apart from the segments – presumably there to provide some comic relief – where the new theatre owners and cast bitch and moan in a semi-spoken, semi-sung way that’s never less than annoying.
Still, the sheer spectacle of the thing should ensure that tickets are in high demand. And quite right too – as an immersive and engaging experience it’s very hard to fault. We’re somewhat spoiled by the amount and quality of theatre in Liverpool, but this new production of Phantom brought another dimension to town; dripping with cash, it brought a wallop of West End dazzle to the Empire.
The Phantom of the Opera
Until Saturday 9 March
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