In the spur of the moment, I ended up at Her Majesty's Theatre on this particular day ready and willing to be blown away by what I was to witness. Luckily, I was not disappointed: becoming addicted from the moment that the Overture started, and from then on, I knew that I was going to be in for a treat. Having never seen Phantom before - yet known the majority of the songs - I was desperate to finally be able to piece everything together. What I witnessed was a brilliant ensemble performance, clear stand-out principal actors and the most breath-taking musical score that is surely only rivalled by Les Miserables in terms of depth, complexity and variation. The sign of a good show is when, upon walking out, you feel certain in the knowledge you will be heading back. Here, I got that feeling even as the cast were taking their bows.
Andrew Lloyd-Webber's musical masterpiece has been on the West End for nearly 27 unrelenting years and it is clear to see why. It seems to be regarded as perhaps his greatest ever success and, whilst I have not seen every one of his productions so far, it will surely be hard to ever top Phantom. The staging, costumes and music are all timeless in the ability to completely wow first-time viewers such as myself. There is very little not to love.
Having heard big, talented names such as John Owen-Jones and Ramin Karimloo sing songs from the show before, Marcus Lovett had a lot to live up to for me. Boy did he deliver. Granted, he sings the songs slightly differently to John and Ramin who are darker, clearer tenors. But by all means, he is no less effective. His vocals are dominant and commanding. The passion, the drive and the physical presence Marcus carries with him on stage is infectious too, and you cannot help but feel sorry for him as Christine and Raoul sail off stage together at the end of Act 2. It was his powerful body language and posture that marked his performance out as particularly striking; along the same lines, I was thereby not surprised to see him popping up all over the place; stage left, right, at the top of the proscenium arch and hiding behind pieces of set. He was ubiquitous, aided by some very clever sound mixing and lighting. It sounds silly to say given the title of the piece but it really is the Phantom's show and Lovett revels in the role (perhaps not a surprise, given he is reaching the end of this contract which is not his first run in the show, either). Try and catch him before the end of August.
Sofia Escobar was simply divine as Christine. As near a note-perfect performance as you'll see, that was refreshingly believable and captivating. Her vocals gave me shivers on multiple occasions and she seemed comfortably within the extensive range required of a Christine. The acid test of any Christine is probably the last minute or so of the title song and I've never heard anyone sing it better. Sofia's parts of All I Ask Of You were heart-wrenchingly beautiful; she conveyed the torn emotions of her character perfectly and yet remained so loving towards both men at the same time: in relationships that were actually credible. I could not take my eyes off her on stage. I don't really know what else to say other than to offer congratulations on a stunning performance. It was refreshing to find out she was worked her way up having first understudied the role when she first joined the cast back in 2007, too.
Raoul is currently played by Simon Thomas who is a fantastic foil to the Phantom. He too is appropriately commanding of the stage and he possesses a quiet air of superiority over the other characters. He seems completely in control of the role and he is an extremely competent vocalist. Again, All I Ask Of You was one of the highlights of the show thanks to the emotional quality of his and Sofia's performances; such that, however much we as the audience sympathise with the Phantom's emotional plight, it is not too unsatisfactory an ending to have him ride away with Christine. He was a joy to watch and brought across the stubborn, protective side of Raoul's character very well.
Nicola Rutherford played Carlotta at this performance. She too had a stunning voice that is used to great effect and sadly well hidden when in her ensemble track. She was clearly loving being on stage and in the limelight, and she did not disappoint; even if her character is over-shadowed by the talent of Christine. Her Think of Me and various verses of Notes were nicely rendered and the only thing I could pick up on was perhaps her expression, both facial and vocal, could be more varied - admittedly, the former could be restricted by the heavy make-up, though.
Barry James and Tim Laurenti were on a Messrs. Firmin and Andre. What can I say? They both sang very well and provided excellent comic relief at points when it was most needed. You wouldn't have known Tim was a cover which is testament to his ability; their chemistry and comedy was not at all forced and it would be easy to imagine them as genuine friends or colleagues. Barry too gave a wonderful performance and, despite having been in the show five years, the portrayal was fresh enough such that it may as well have been his opening night. Both were a testament to the show with their limitless energy and enthusiasm.
Cheryl McAvoy's Madame Giry was appropriately menacing at points and I ended up feeling quite sorry for Meg at times. However, she softens nicely as the musical goes on and you get a slightly better sense of the mother-daughter bond. This was aptly demonstrated through her stiffer tone and body language upon entrance and her more relaxed frame in Act 2, particularly once she had revealed what she knew regarding the Phantom. A nicely nuanced performance.
Jeremy Secomb's make-up as Ubaldo Piangi was fantastic and he stood out mainly for this reason whenever he was on stage! Add to that a strong vocal whenever he had the chance and a consistently excellent - sometimes quite menacing - expression, it made him an excellent partner in crime (if you can call it that) for Carlotta.
Meg Giry was played by Anna Forbes and she did a stunning job with what little she had to do. She bonded really well with Christine and the flashes of her voice that we were treated to were fantastic. Her final scene with the Phantom's mask was really nicely done - both in terms of her acting and the Phatom's clever disappearance - and was a fitting way by which to end the show.
The ensemble, all listed below, really are fantastic. The main showcase for them is Masquerade, which itself is a fantastically fluid and varied piece of music. The group dancing and singing was a true joy to behold and it is not an exaggeration to say they were probably one of the best ensembles that I have seen in any form of theatre. Every single performer was on point, there were no line fluffs or late entries and the reverberating sound was as memorable as it was consistent. They should be commended on their effort; from Marcus right through to the ballet chorus, and even on the first in a two-show day, there was no hint of holding back in terms of energy level and performance. A special shout-out also for the special effects: the lighting, chandelier movement and co-ordination, use of the auditorium (orchestra pit included!) and staging was all genius and not at all outdated. The show feels fresh and long may it continue to seem so, as in all likelihood, I will be back before too long.
At this performance, the cast was:
Marcus Lovett (The Phantom), Sofia Escobar (Christine Daae), Simon Thomas (Raoul), Nicola Rutherford (Carlotta Guidicelli), Barry James (Monsieur Firmin), Tim Laurenti (Monsieur Andre), Cheryl McAvoy (Madame Giry), Jeremy Secomb (Ubaldo Piangi), Anna Forbes (Meg Giry), Philip Griffiths (Monsieur Reyer/Auctioneer), Richard Munday (Monsieur Lefevre), Michael Kerry (Joseph Buquet), Emma Barr (Confidante (Il Muto)), Duncan Smith ((Il Muto)/Firechief), Marc Vastenavondt (Passarino/Jeweller (Il Muto)), Ben Morris (Hairdresser (Il Muto)), Ellen Jackson (Wardrobe Mistress), Simon Rackley (Slave Master (Hannibal)), Matthew Powell (Porter/Lion Man), Janet Fischer (Wild Woman (Hannibal)), Antony Hansen (Solider (Hannibal)), Ashleigh Fleming (Princess (Hannibal)), Louisa Lydell (Madame Firmin), Tim Morgan (Policeman in the Pit), Meshell Dillon (Page (Don Juan Triumphant) with Nicole Cato, Layla Harrison, Carrie Taylor Johnson, Charise Renouf, Anna Shircliff, Danielle Stephens as The Ballet Chorus of the Opera Populaire.
Also in the cast are Anna O'Byrne, Lara Martins, Gareth Snook, Simon Shorten, Peter Dukes, Emma Barr, Lyndsey Gardiner and Claire Tilling.