As someone who refused to listen to popular music throughout most of high school in favor of Broadway cast recordings, I was thrilled when I got a pitch from Universal Studios Home Entertainment to cover the release of The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall on DVD and Blu-ray. They sent me a copy of the Blu-ray as a screener, and I was most impressed. The recent trend of turning popular musicals into mainstream movie musicals has been helpful in bringing musical theatre to the masses, but I was very disappointed with the theatrical version of Phantom of the Opera that was released in 2004. Theatrical adaptations can’t hold a candle to live performances, and this 25th anniversary performance was everything I wanted to 2004 movie to be.
I’ve seen Phantom of the Opera twice on Broadway and once in our regional theater when it went on tour several years ago. It is with this critical eye that I reviewed the DVD/Blu-ray.
I have nothing bad to say about any of the cast members as far as their singing, other than a few sour notes from Firmin and Andre. The cast features Olivier Award nominee Ramin Karimloo as the Phantom, Olivier Award Nominee Sierra Boggess as Christine Daae, and Hadley Fraser as Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny. The supporting cast includes Wendy Ferguson as Carlotta, Wynne Evans as Piangi, Daisy Maywood as Meg Giry, Liz Robertson as Madame Giry, Barry James as Monsieur Firmin, and Gareth Snook as Monsieur Andre. But if you ever listened to the same Original Cast Recording I had in high school and you want to sing along, some of the lyrics have changed. “Think of Me,” for one, is very different.
I’ve read some other reviews of this performance that were critical of the use of the click track for the title number, “Phantom of the Opera.” That last note sung by Christine is exceptionally difficult to hit, even for an experienced and talented soprano. Sure, she didn’t have to hit that note for seven other performances that week, but can you imagine the pressure? This performance was a tribute for the 25th anniversary of the musical, being broadcast to movie theaters and being recorded for DVD and Blu-ray. If Ms. Boggess had faltered on that note, it would have been disastrous. Use of the click track was completely warranted.
I was so moved by Ms. Boggess’s “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again” and the trio in the scene that followed. It’s always been one of my favorite scenes – I sang the song for rep class when I was a junior – and I would love to be able to wear Christine’s costume just once for a costume party. Sigh…
I will make few comments about the acting. Mr. Fraser plays Raoul like a petulant prep school boy who too often lacks any genuine concern for the woman he proclaims to love. As for Ms. Boggess, some of her acting is completely inappropriate for the scene. She made a choice before the “Twisted Every Way” scene that I wouldn’t have gone with – hysteria – but it fit with the sentiment.
But in “The Point of No Return,” she plays Christine’s character in Don Juan the way the Phantom wrote the part – dripping with raw sexuality. Every other time I’ve seen it staged, Christine was unable to get into character, knowing that it was the Phantom under the cloak, and not Piangi, who almost certainly was dead. The realization should have hit her as soon as he started singing. There should have been nervousness, frightened glances at Raoul and the sharpshooters around the theatre. The whole double meaning to her lines is lost. “Now I am here with you / No second thoughts / I’ve decided / Decided.” Her character had decided to sleep with the Phantom’s character; but Christine was here because she had decided, once and for all, to stop him by any means necessary – using herself as bait so the armed men could get a clear shot on him and take him out. Instead, she plays the flirty tart until the very end. She doesn’t recoil as he gropes her. The only real struggle happens in the last verse when she tries to run away.
Mr. Karimloo, though – he plays the Phantom to perfection. The way his hands tremble, the emotion on his face even under the piles of makeup he has to wear… A true actor as well as a singer.
The chandelier is one of the most crucial visuals in Phantom. I love how they dealt with it in this production, unveiling it already in place at the beginning. The slow crawl of the sadly flexible chandelier they use on Broadway (and its equally slow descent at the end of Act I) is almost laughable. I remember giggling at it the first time I saw the show on Broadway in high school. They may not have made it crash onto the stage at the Royal Albert Hall, but at least it’s not inappropriately humorous.
I also love how the Phantom was on stage playing the organ during the overture. I don’t remember that being done in any of the productions I’ve seen live. Very nice touch.
The costumes! The dancing! Absolutely gorgeous. The video screen used for some of the backdrops can be a little distracting sometimes, but other times it can make up for some of the venue’s shortcomings.
Gratefully, the ballerinas seem to have held to the original staging, as well, always holding to poses used in Edgar Degas’s ballet dancer paintings. (How do I even know about this? I took a fascinating high school English class called Literature of the Musical Theatre. Our teacher, Mr. Ron Jacobs, knew amazing details about performances of every musical we studied. I think it was my favorite class out of my entire school career.)
“Masquerade” was visually stunning, with costumes from various productions of Phantom around the world, and with such a large cast. I did note an absence of characters wearing the Mask of the Red Death who were supposed to be passing Christine around during the dance sequence, though, which makes her “reunion” with Raoul a little anticlimactic. It’s a shame they didn’t have the large staircase to use for the Phantom’s descent and the missing explosion. A whole plot point is lost when the Phantom doesn’t rip the engagement ring off the chain around Christine’s neck either.
Staging at the Royal Albert Hall
Having the performance at the Royal Albert Hall caused no small number of problems for the traditional staging of the show, which was the subject of one of the Blu-ray’s special features. There are no wings at this venue, which made it very difficult for the actors to make entrances and exits. Large props like the elephant from the opening Hannibal sequence just could not be brought in. The complete lack of a trap door system also took away some of the hallmark moments of the show. The underground lake and boat in the title number were very disappointing – and we never got to see Raoul dive into the lake near the end of the show. That was always a breathtaking moment for people who had never seen the show before.
Why no mannequin in the Phantom’s lair? It’s supposed to look like Christine, and wear the wedding dress that he makes her wear in the finale sequence. It’s supposed to lurch forward and frighten her to fainting during “Music of the Night.” The elephant, I understood why it wasn’t there. The mannequin, not so much. And the magical lasso? Not so magical. Why doesn’t the Phantom slap Christine when she tries his patience? It cements his lack of humanity, his fallback to violence.
Still, for all of the nitpicky issues I have with the staging, the rest of the show was remarkably true to form.
If you want to expose your family to musical theatre, and not just Hollywood’s version of popular musicals like Chicago, RENT, and Evita, I would highly recommend The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall as a more authentic experience. You can click on the picture at the beginning of this post to purchase the DVD or Blu-ray through my Amazon affiliate link.