Four words sum up the unstoppable success of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s triumphant re-working of this vintage spine-tingling melodrama. Stars, spectacle, score and story.
Together they add up to that old magic ingredient: theatricality. There is simply nothing on earth to transport you so quickly or so far into phantasy than a feast of illusions. And Hal Prince’s production stints nothing in providing an unending banquet of the stuff.
When I get my breath back from gulping down as much as is decent in one sitting, let me deal with each item in turn.
First the star and the evening’s greatest surprise. Were it not that I personally know Michael Crawford’s singing teacher to be the kindest and mildest of men, I would swear that Mr Crawford had sold his soul to the Devil to acquire the rich and powerful voice with which he floods the theatre and holds us hypnotised in his presence.
The mask that for most of the evening obliterates half his face only hints at the physical horrors beneath it. But, by the time his golden-voiced protégé has torn it aside to reveal a peeling skull and rotting flesh, he has utterly established the phantom as one of the enduring tragic figures of the modern musical; a man with a tender, gifted and loving soul whose only crime was to have been born a freak.
It is surely one of the great performances, not only in a musical but on any stage and in any year.
In this Mr Crawford is indeed fortunate to be partnered by someone as illustrious and exotically voiced as Sarah Brightman. I can think of no other actress whose glorious operatice range can match a stage present so delicately vulnerable or exquisitely beautiful.
On now to the full throttle spectacle that Maria Bjornson has conjured up to encompass all the diverse elements of the evening.
Giant chandeliers plummet from on high; great gilded angels bear Mr Crawford skyward as he sings out his heart to heaven; a lavish fancy dress masquerade underlines the sinister nature of disguise; high-camp pastiches of less than grand opera strike just the right note of comic relief while a lake of lights floats us down to the Phantom’s lair beneath the great Opera House of Paris.
As for the score, it soars and instils itself into the mind like some half-forgotten refrain from Verdi, taking the story line on in great sweeps of musical sound. In its unabashed romanticism it reminds us that the Phantom is at heart a simple take of unrequited love, as inspiring and moving it its way as Romeo and Juliet, or more appropriately Beauty and the Beast.
Yet to underline the sheer theatricality of the piece the Phantom does nothing so mundane as to die for love. He vanishes in a blink before our eyes.
True there are faults but to pick them here and now would be churlish and irrelevant. Mr Lloyd Webber has another long-term tenancy and his wife has established herself as a star of status.
As for Michael Crawford there is just no other artist in the country today who can touch his command of a stage or match his daring in meeting a new challenge.
Jack Tinker, Daily Mail, 10th October 1986