Review – Phantom of the Opera – Her Majesty’s Theatre

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So … I’m an anti-Webberian. All of the excesses of 80s musicals seem to rest directly at Sir Andrew’s feet, from the tacky costumes of Cats to the “show it, don’t imagine it” helicopter of Miss Saigon (which, though not his show, seems his fault). And then there are the lyrics of his songs. I am a fan of Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, and to me it speaks poorly of Webber that his songs are written at a level of intelligence suitable for an eighth grade education. Witty jokes about politics and culture? Forget about it. Instead, you get shows that are MARKETABLE, with MERCHANDISE. Not my thing at all. Unless, of course, you put the cast on rollerskates, but I see that as a personal aberration, sort of like my appreciation of Abba, and in no way breaking the chain of horrors.

So what was I doing blowing a precious half-day’s holiday to see Phantom of the Opera, having not only bought a ticket for myself but for someone else? Well … it’s like this. I’ve got a friend (well, a couple, actually) who’ve got a WONDERFUL daughter, just adorable and so smart. She apparently goes around the house singing songs from musicals and Phantom of the Opera is one of her favorites (she seems to like spooky stuff, and I know her parents like this show). So when her birthday came around, her mom posted on Facebook that what her daughter had asked for for her birthday was tickets to Phantom, but when she found out that cinema and theater prices are really just not at all the same and it wasn’t really going to be possible, well, one little girl was very, very sad that her birthday present just really wasn’t possible.

And there I was, reading this, about a little girl whose dream for her birthday was to see her favorite show LIVE. It’s, basically, exactly the kind of dream I think SHOULD come true, for everyone. And here I am, seeing about three live shows a week without thinking about it (admittedly it helps that I’m trying to make sure all of my tickets are 15 quid or less), reading about her birthday wish that wasn’t coming true. And man, I may think Lloyd Weber is a pedlar of the mediocre but if on the other side of the equation is a small person WHO JUST WANTS TO SEE THE BEST SHOW IN THE WORLD IN PERSON who am I to question her tastes? I want EVERY little girl who dreams of seeing a musical RIGHT THERE ON STAGE to get to do that. And, you know, if I could make that dream come true just by, you know, spending a little money … why not? Maybe she had something to teach me about musical appreciation: I was sure she could teach me something about joy. And since I’d spent most of January being really sick and not going to shows at all, it seemed to me like the perfect way to blow the dosh I’d been accumulating by lying around on the couch while simultaneously getting to spend some time with friends, thereby attacking the isolation and mopiness caused by being ill in one blow. I was a bit worried that she was, perhaps, too young to be seeing a show, but I’m pleased to report that she was actually much better behaved than the gaggle of 18 year old Spanish girls who sat behind us talking out loud until I shushed them (which I had to do three times). Small child bounced and grinned and did NOT sing along; she was, basically, perfect.

Right. So, the show. I listened to it once years ago and had forgotten everything including any specifics of the plot, so I went into this as a blank slate. There is a theater in which operas are being produced (though we start the show long after this is all over), and accidents keep happening (one of them APPARENTLY INVOLVING A CHANDELIER, the other involving a mechanical monkey); this is because the theater has a “phantom” (which some people believe in) who is causing problems such as sandbags falling from the ceiling and people being accidentally hanged. Since he leaves notes (and is apparently getting paid off by the theater owner), it’s pretty clear that he’s real: so why do the people who’ve just bought the theater have a problem with accepting his existence? Dramatic tension, I suppose. BLAH minion BLAH love interest BLAH really good looking women showing off their legs BLAH can the beauty love the beast et cetera.

It was fun, actually, to see a show where I knew they’d spent all of the money they’d wanted to on costumes and scenery, so I didn’t have go wonder what they would have done if they’d actually been able to splash out. Instead I got the TRULY AMAZING “paddling the boat through a candlelit cave” scene, and WOWZA the costumes were really flash. I mean, in the very first scene at the opera, where they’re doing, um, an opera set in Rome with elephants, every single person was wearing something really, really detailed. This meant I was blown away during the masquerade scene (despite cringing at the song). I was actually so amazed by people’s boots I was not really able to focus on the action on stage and it took me ages to realize about 20% of the people standing on the staircase were actually statues (helps keep the hands overhead for a whole scene when you don’t actually have to rely on mere muscle).

And, well, if you’re going to do a show set at an opera, you’d really better make sure your singers can handle the job. I was actually really amazed at the powerful lungs of our two lady sopranos, and the truly ballsy music Webber had written to make sure you knew you were listening to people who could f**king sing. I’m not talking some kind of Whitney Houston pop stuff: I mean crazy Queen of the Night coloratura stuff, so far up the scale you start to not believe you’re actually hearing notes coming out of a human being’s throat. I can only imagine that these roles are the kind where people can only perform them for a few years of their career, when they are at their absolute maximum vocal range; but this show could choose to pick people who could do it rather than rewriting the music for lesser talents. It was, once again, really impressive.

Overall, I have to say, that as a work of “wow” theater, Phantom of the Opera delivered, and I can see why it’s so popular: it’s really very accessible and very showy and exactly the kind of thing you’d send people to if they were making a big trip to London and wanted a sampling of the kind of top-quality production a world theater capital can put on. I’m much more of a specialized audience, less willing to spend a bundle on a show for a “guaranteed” experience and more interested in seeing something that pushes me. And, well, I just didn’t like the music at all. It’s not my style.

That said … it was very much the style of one little girl, and afterwards, the current Phantom (Marcus Lovett) came to the stage door to meet her, the world’s youngest Andrew Lloyd Webber fan. His makeup was off and he was running out to get a bit of dinner, but he took some time to talk to her and even try to sing a few songs with her. For me, it was one of the most magical moments I’ve ever had, and the whole experience was really pretty much perfect, with a cherry on top thanks to his goodnatured, generous outreach.

So when I say, at the end of every review, was it worth what I paid for this ticket? I have to say for this show, what I got in exchange for two tickets was really priceless: a truly memorable experience that left me smiling from my rained-on hair all the way down to my (much less glamorous) boots.
The world's youngest Andrew Lloyd Webber fan - with @mar... on Twitpic
(This review is for a performance that took place the afternoon of Thursday, January 31st, 2013. Thank you to Get Into London Theater for their 35 quid ticket offer, it made this all much more doable!)

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