(a film review by Mark R. Leeper)

CAPSULE: A new production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA has been made for television to be shown on venues like Public Television's Great Performances. This is "a full stage production," but presumably the tightness of the Royal Albert Hall stage and the inability of the producers to modify the theater created technical problems that may have been imperfectly overcome. Still, it is the good story that people have come to know. Quite unexpectedly Sierra Boggess as Christine Daae proves to be accomplished as an actress as well as singer. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10

[I will not give a plot synopsis. I assume the reader can look the story up on the Internet if it is unfamiliar.]

Really popular musicals go through life stages just as people do. They open to large audiences. Soon it is impossible to buy tickets for them. People have to wait months for tickets. Some people want to see the plays over and over while others are satisfied seeing the plays once. There may be openings in other cities, but the demand for seats slowly drops. When there are not a lot of people willing to pay theatrical prices, there will be a film to bring the musical to people who do not want to pay the cost of a live performance. And finally when the performances and film are not bringing in much revenue, its last stage is to be produced for Public Television where the play is given away free to anyone who wants to record it and is willing to sit through long pledge drives. Many people have seen plays like CAMELOT or LES MISERABLES only on PBS. Andrew Lloyd Webber's THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA has gone through all the stages and in now in the PBS phase with PHANTOM OF THE OPERA AT ROYAL ALBERT HALL being shown on PBS's "Great Performances".

The plot is, of course, almost identical to every other production of the Webber musical. What specific make this production different? Is this a good production?

I have been told by a friend who knows ballet that the dance portions of the performance were not really up to snuff. She said they seemed dull to her. I am not that much of an expert. I noticed problems I previously had seen in other productions. Christine Daae's victory over Carlotta seems to come from singing a song with naturalistic style while Carlotta seems to be singing with coloratura. The two performances cannot be compared directly in that way. If an opera calls for an aria (in this case "Think of Me") to be sung with coloratura, that is how it is sung. The singer is not given a choice, I believe. We modern listeners prefer a naturalistic style, but the fact that Christine sounds better to our ears when she sings in that style means little.

In the inner play, the production of the Phantom's opera, the Phantom secretly replaces another singer and sings in his place. I think that opera fans know singers' voices enough so that when the Phantom takes the place of another singer it would be noticed immediately by a lot of people. It is like if Bobby Darin was substituting for Frank Sinatra--people would notice it is a different voice.

I did notice something positive about this production. Most Christines have limited facial expression. They may smile or frown but give not much expression. Emmy Rossum in Joel Schumaker's film version and she has very limited facial expression. This production's Christine, Sierra Boggess, acts and reacts with her face. She was not only a good actress; her created Christine was a better actress in the Don Juan subplay than the real Emmy Rossum was in the Schumaker film.

There are several visual problems with this production. Generally for a play, particularly a major one expecting a long successful run, architectural modifications to the theater can be arranged. If a trap door is needed in the floor, for example, one can be cut. Sets may take weeks to build. I suspect that a theater requires a good deal of tailoring over a period of weeks for a spectacular play like PHANTOM with its swinging chandelier and underground grotto with boat. Staging PHANTOM for one made-for-TV performance it is unlikely that Royal Albert Hall could be so obliging. Certain expedients would have been necessary. The chandelier does not fall on the audience as written in the play but instead just explodes a bit. It is hard to believe it as a real, effective terrorist act--which is what the play calls for it to be. There was probably insufficient room for the massive sets the play calls for. Instead this production makes use of giant flat-screen televisions for the backgrounds. It is an ingenious solution to their problem, but it is not very convincing for the viewer. The television scan lines are much too obvious and distracting. The mirror that the Phantom appears behind also seems like a flat screen television. This gives the audience a large image of Christine that can be seen from the back row, but it was prerecorded, so Boggess on the stage has to try to mimic its moves like Groucho and Harpo in DUCK SOUP. Another thing that does not work, though it is common musicals these days, is to put all too visible and obvious sound mikes on the singers.

In the casting there is sort of a visual joke that the major opera singers are corpulent. Wendy Ferguson as Carlotta is rather portly, but this does not work. The Webber play calls for Carlotta to be lithe enough to play a pageboy. Admittedly in producing an opera a singer's voice is considered more important than the singer's appearance. But that would not be true of the pageboy, which is a silent role.

The costumes are as ornate as in the stage versions I have seen, but I think that the Schumacher film is more ornate. That film is really a visual masterpiece. One place where the Albert Hall version works better than the Schumacher visually is with the Phantom makeup. The Phantom is supposed to look acceptable while he is wearing the mask but to look really nightmarish without the mask. That is a difficult constraint, but the Royal Albert Hall makeup is probably as effective and horrific as from any dramatic version of the story.

In what appears to be an error, at least twice when Phantom Ramin Karimloo appears to be singing, his voice seems to be cut from the soundtrack. His mouth moves but there is no sound on the soundtrack issuing from his mouth. In the roof scene and just after the kiss at the end, his mouth is seen to move, but nothing is heard. I am guessing this is an editing mistake or it was decided that some lines had to be cut.

The pacing feels slow in the early parts of the story, but that might have been because I am used to the released album, which is somewhat cut down from the play as it is usually performed.

Originally when the play was new, the audience was kept in suspense as to what the Phantom would look like. His face is first seen dramatically in Christine's mirror. This production, directed by Nick Morris and Laurence Connor, has the Phantom on stage, apparently playing an organ, shown under the opening credits. I suppose it is assumed that people now know what the Phantom from the Webber play usually looks like.

By this point any production of Webber's THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA should benefit from the other productions that have gone before. And this is still a very moving play. It has its own virtues and its own faults, many of which might be the result of staging in the Royal Albert Hall. This staging has its own unique faults among its virtues. I would rate PHANTOM OF THE OPERA AT ROYAL ALBERT HALL a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.

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					Mark R. Leeper
					Copyright 2012 Mark R. Leeper