The Phantom of the Opera. Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Lyrics by Charles Hart, additional lyrics by Richard Stilgoe. Directed by David Harmon. Musical director Ian McLean. Choreography by Jacquelyn Richards. Free-Rain Theatre Company. At The Canberra Theatre, August 9-23.
Lush and romantic to the core, that's Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera, spawned out of Gaston Leroux's 1911 novel with a glance or two in the direction of the 1925 silent film.
And ''lush and romantic'' also describes Free-Rain's rather glorious version as the somewhat dour 1960s Canberra Theatre stage gets a makeover reminiscent of the old Canberra Opera's transformation of the Bruce indoor stadium into ancient Egypt, complete with a live elephant, for the similarly pro-am Aida back in 1981.
There's an elephant here, too, on the stage of the Opera Populaire - the theatre menaced by the mysterious Phantom (Michael Cormick) - but it's a gorgeous huge blue velvet puppet taking part in Hannibal, one of the operas-within-a-musical that provide so much of the show's humour.
But mostly, of course, it is all about the Phantom's desire to control the theatre that he haunts and to gain the love of singer Christine Daae (Julie Lea Goodwin). She understandably prefers her aristocratic suitor Raoul (David Pearson) to being kidnapped by a masked musical Svengali who has an obsession with improving her voice.
It's a tragic triangle played and sung with authority. Cormick's Phantom is intense and haunting, evoking a sympathy that is swept away by his actions. As heroine Christine, Goodwin has a welcome feistiness and intelligence as well as the musical stature for the role and Pearson brings strength to the rather less developed part of Raoul.
A rich cast of supporting characters people the Opera Populaire. Christine Wallace sulks wonderfully as displaced leading lady Carlotta who, on the evidence of her roles in Hannibal and the Mozartian comedy Il Muto, is not as good as she thinks she is. Ben O'Reilly as her leading man Piangi is just as much of a prima donna, taking direction poorly in Hannibal rehearsals and flouncing when flouted.
Monsieurs Firmin (Michael Moore) and Andre (Tony Falla) are an amusing double act as the new owners of the opera house who increasingly have to deal with the interference of the Phantom. And Bronwyn Sullivan's brooding black-clad Madame Giry rules the opera's ballet dancers and seems always to know more than she tells, a presence almost as awesome as the Phantom's.
Director David Harmon does not neglect humour and character, right down to the stagehands and the slightly ramshackle nature of the ballet dancers, who look like Degas' pictures in the footlights. The claustrophobic backstage world of the piece created by head of design Cate Clelland supports the central melodrama with appropriately red curtains and period detail.
Ian McLean's pit orchestra never misses and serves the score very well indeed. It's a pity that the microphone system for the singers does not always appear to be measuring up to this.
However, it's a show about theatre at its most showy and that means appearances, disappearances, pyrotechnics, an underground lake, shows within shows and of course the business with the great chandelier. The many lovers of Phantom will not come away disappointed.
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