stage show

The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall [Blu-ray]

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I’ve been an unabashed fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera ever since it opened – which is 25 years ago, as this silver anniversary celebration of the show staged at the Royal Albert Hall reminds us. I’ve seen it twice, got the book and the CD and even the DVD of the so-so 2004 feature film version, so you won’t get any critical re-appraisal of the show from me here. It is for me the best stage musical I’ve ever seen (tied perhaps with Jesus Christ Superstar and only a whisker ahead of West Side Story.)

Given the story’s history (right back to Gaston Leroux’s 1909 original novel, through multiple adaptations including Lon Chaney’s seminal 1925 silent classic, Claude Rain’s flawed but enjoyable 1943 version through to Hammer’s very 1960s version with Herbert Lom) it seems unnecessary to give a long rundown of the plot (disfigured composer in the bowels of the Paris Opera House seduces a young chorus girl.) And if you haven’t seen or heard the musical … Well, stop reading now, this is no place for such philistines! (I jest. A bit.)

For the 25th anniversary, composer Lord Lloyd Webber and producer Sir Cameron Mackintosh decided to take the notoriously hard-to-stage show and put it on at the Royal Albert Hall – which of course is a symphony hall not a full theatre. It was a basically insane idea, and like all insane ideas in showbusiness it can – and in this case does – result in the most triumphant success. Some changes are forced, of course: there’s no way that the chandelier can be ‘dropped’ at the end of Act 1, so there’s some spectacular ‘nice try’ but still underwhelming pyrotechnics instead. Some of the ‘magical’ disappearances-into-thin-air have to be fudged over as well, as the Royal Albert Hall stage has none of the custom-built trap doors that the show’s regular London home at Her Majesty’s Theatre has.

But by and large (with the sole exception of the chandelier, perhaps) none of these matter and are more than made up for by the inventiveness shown by the production team working around it while remaining true to the majestic original designs of the late Maria Björnson. The key scene everyone remembers with the boat on a mist-filled lake lit with candles is beautifully realised. One scene that could have been a let down – the masquerade which opens Act 2 that features a stunning non-replicable sweeping staircase in the stage show – is instead re-imagined for the constrained Royal Albert Hall backstage and too-narrow access points combined with a cast three times the regular stage show’s, and makes a genuine triumph that almost surpasses the original.

The principle way it’s all achieved is by using huge electronic LCD display screens in place of flown-in physical scenery and then using the stage show’s regular costumes and props (although alas Hannibal’s hollowed-out life-size elephant was apparently too big to make the trip over from the West End for its big moment.) The screens are a masterstroke, allowing the show to retain its look and feel even in this temporary home and even adding one true coup de théâtre of its own, when we switch to a backstage point-of-view for Christine’s curtain call, and the backdrop shows … the Royal Albert Hall audience itself, applauding live, actually improving upon the original staging.

While I’d possibly have preferred the chance to have a copy of the regular stage performance rather than this one-off ‘special’, in fact the Royal Albert Hall is used brilliantly throughout, looks wonderful and becomes a real player in the performance – not to mention that there is a full orchestra and a genuine full size pipe organ to use. The score has never sounded better as a result: to my knowledge, it’s the first time that a complete performance of the show has ever been released on either DVD or CD, as even the iconic original cast recording CD from 1986 cuts out some of the dialogue and abridges some of the faux classical pieces along the way. For that reason alone this Blu-ray/DVD is a must-buy for true Phantom fans.

Despite being a completely live performance, I couldn’t see a single flaw in how it ran. What you get from a filmed stage performance over a movie version is to relive how incredibly clever some of the staging of the show truly is and always has been, allowing for on-stage costume changes and audacious scene transitions – and all of that is here to savour. But this filmed production also gets right in close to the action, and it’s shocking to see how good the acting performances are close-up even as they have to play simultaneously to the grandeur of the Royal Albert Hall.

Ramin Karimloo’s performance as the Phantom (both acting and vocal) is just staggering, while Sierra Boggess’s Christine makes the difficult singing of her role look effortless while achieving perfection – their final scenes are breathtaking and heartbreaking, and the close-ups reveal genuine tears of emotion from both leads. Even Hadley Fraser’s Raoul is a far greater, feistier presence here than the basically useless third wheel the character often appeared in some early performances at the start of the show’s run in the 1980s; and there’s lovely work from Wendy Ferguson as La Carlotta, comedic of course but with unexpectedly interesting and deep nuances as well.

Basically everyone is terrific: with the cream of 25 years of Phantom casts from around the world to choose from the performances were always going to be top-notch, and they truly are. For long-time fans it’s interesting to see how much has changed in some of the roles, with the original portrayals sounding rather shallow and underdeveloped compared with the latest stars, who have 25 years of successive superb casts to study and learn from, enabling added depth to the performances surely unparalleled in modern musical theatre. Although it’s true, I might be a little biased here.

As for the Blu-Ray: It’s a gorgeous transfer, the costumes in particular looking absolutely stunning in high definition. The production manages to balance the need for genuine stage make-up with not looking too over-baked for screen, the colours jump off the screen and the blacks are rich while retaining detail and solidity. Only in the close-ups with the LCD backdrops does the presentation even vaguely let us down, as the high-res sharpening on the oversize electronic ‘pixels’ becomes a distraction – but that’s not the disc’s fault, or indeed the production’s. It is what it was on the night – and what it is, is wonderful.

In terms of extras there’s just one 20 minute behind the scenes feature cheaply shot on non-professional equipement, but it’s nice enough and somehow more real and enjoyable than the usual professional puff-pieces you get. It certainly shows just how insane the idea to stage this at the Royal Albert Hall really was, and the frenzied work that went into making it happen. The real ‘extra’ – and the only one that fans probably really want from this – is that the post-show final half hour at the Royal Albert Hall is retained in full, wherein Andrew Lloyd Webber steps out onto the stage to introduce some of the original stars and creative team (as well as the team behind the Royal Albert Hall staging). He then unveils to a delighted audience the original Christine Daaé, his former wife Sarah Brightman, to reprise the title song to the show accompanied by five of the men who have played the title role over the years: Peter Jöback, John Owen-Jones, Anthony Warlow and Colm Wilkinson, along with the night’s lead Karimloo.

It’s the brief moments when the original and latest leads line up and briefly interact – Michael Crawford with Ramin Karimloo, Sarah Brightman with Sierra Boggess – that really bring home the extraordinary history and success of this show and will truly delight fans and mean not a dry eye in the house for devotees. Appropriately, though, the final curtain call is left to the two stars of the evening, as Karimloo quite literally sweeps Boggess off her feet and the two exit stage centre to a thunderous standing ovation.

Available on Blu-ray and on DVD. The production was also shown on Channel 5 on Easter Monday 2012.