A timeless journey

If you thought the South African production of Cats was terrific you’ll be knocked out by Phantom.

I have always studiously avoided seeing this musical because I perceived The Phantom of the Opera as a schmaltzy melodrama with a few played-to-death love songs. Little did I know what I was missing – a timeless journey into the annals of theatre and music making.

Underpinning the intertwining romances between the gorgeous and grotesque is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s love affair with theatrical conventions and opera lore.

Eighteen years ago, while paying loving homage to the past, the composer and his collaborators created a contemporary musical which has robustly survived into the 21st century.

The complexity of the operatic music, making huge demands on the singers, is twinned with director Hal Prince’s delicious theatricality.

So what if the storyline doesn’t always make sense, this is strictly fantasy time. Old traditions like flying scenery (now computerised) and breathtaking transformations capture the mystique of yore while seducing more cynical techno-minded audiences into artistic nirvana.

On opening night, in the revamped Artscape Opera House, art imitated art. The leading lady Lana English, suffering from throat problems, was replaced by understudy Amy Hudson.

This 19-year-old Capetonian made a dream debut in the role of the human nightingale Christine Daae who gets her shot at stardom, albeit through sinister intervention. By Hudson’s ravishing side was another young performer, Brennan Holder, making his professional mark as Raoul, the lovestruck Vicomte de Chagny.

Given all the technical wizardry, extravagant costuming and lashings of youthful beauty, the Phantom, the mysterious figure who lives in the depths of the Paris Opera, could easily be upstaged. Not so André Schwartz who oozes menacing sensuality, dramatic power and twisted pathos.

There are no short cuts in this musical which is also an exacting ensemble piece. By the time it reaches Pretoria in winter many of the performances will have matured.

But already there are marvellous cameos by Pauline du Plessis as the outrageous prima donna Carlotta, Marcus Desando’s ostentatious tenor Ubaldo Piagi, Elizabeth Frandsen’s austere ballet mistress Madame Giry, Jonathan Taylor’s distinguished Monsieur Firmin and Sebastian Zokoza’s hilarious "il muto".

It was a thrill to see and hear a musical of this calibre accompanied by an orchestra. The Really Useful Group team has departed leaving this staging (set to tour extensively internationally) in the hands and voices of its SA performers, production and crew.

It is as if the very phantom of scarred SA theatre has triumphantly risen up to take centrestage with an avalanche of local talent thirsting for excellence and recognition.

By Adrienne Sichel

Published on the web by the Tonight on April 15, 2004.

© Tonight 2004. All rights reserved.

The Phantom of the Opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Charles Hart
Where: Artscape Opera House, Cape Town
(it premieres at the State Theatre in Pretoria on July 13)

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