Rebellion reclamation

Spring Awakening (Millennial Productions)

Ron Hurley Theatre

January 20 – 29

To open an ensemble show with a solo number is a big ask of any performer. In the case of “Spring Awakening”, Nykita O’Keefe, as the innocent and confused Wendla, gives us a plaintively lamentful ‘Mama Who Bore Me’ reassurance that its daring narrative is in good musical hands with Millennial Productions. The sweetly-sung opener not only establishes the calibre of this production of the controversial musical, but conveys the yearning and frustration that underpins the emotions of its characters who are precariously positioned between childhood and adulthood, yet ignorant to what really awaits.

Bolding bringing an uncompromising text such as this to life also represents a challenge. The 1891 German play turned Tony Award winning rock musical puts teen sexuality, domestic and sexual violence, and suicide front and centre as it chronicles late 19th century German students on a journey of teenage self-discovery and coming-of-age anxiety in what is ultimately a powerful celebration of youth and rebellion.

A dominating tree may be bare, its leaves scattered across the stage, but clearly there is much life still within the story being told. In Millennial Productions’ hands, ensemble numbers like ‘Totally Fucked’ serve as catchy blasts of infectious blah blah blah blah blah blah blah echoing energy, which brings Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s stomping rock score to life with the high-energy movement of thrashing teen angst. Combined with Taylor Andrews’ decisive design aesthetic and dynamic direction, it means there is much to celebrate about this truly ensemble work.

Things start strongly as the primary characters of soon-to-be intertwined relationships are introduced. Scenes are swift in their transition from Wendla’s plead to an unhelpful mother to be told the facts of life, to a monotonous Latin drill where we meet our other two leads. The headstrong Melchoir (Damien Quick) leaps to defence of his anxious friend Moritz (AJ Betts), so traumatised by puberty that he can’t concentrate on anything. Lauren Bensted’s stylised choreography is particularly impressive in the resulting, ‘All That’s Known’, in which Melchior reflects on the shallow narrow-mindedness of school and society, as the ensemble of schoolboys move in unison upon and around their schoolroom formation seating.

Musical numbers all make good use of all opportunities of the space as they express the characters’ inner worlds. Melchior’s atmospheric number ‘The Bitch of Living’, about desire and anxiety (and masturbation), for example, can be conveyed in switching perspectives between multiple scenes, to keep audience members totally engaged.

“Spring Awakening” is an ensemble musical and the vocal prowess of this production’s performers blends beautifully in its ensemble numbers, such as the gorgeously soaring concluding ‘The Song of Purple Summer’ surmise that the seeds are planted for a new, open-minded, informed generation. Even smaller numbers showcase some crisp harmonies. O’Keefe’s voice is beautifully flexible and it works well with Quick as they both hit all the right emotional points in their characters’ reflection upon a shared moment of intimacy in an emotionally charged ‘The Guilty Ones’.

Earlier, as the soulful but essentially sad Moritz, struggling to satisfy his family’s expectations (and understand his erotic dreams), Betts is of strong voice too, particularly in ‘Touch Me’, during which the group share of their respective desire for physical intimacy. Betts is, in fact, the standout performer of the night, with charming energy, intense passion and empathetic characterisation. Also of note is Rae Rose who gives Isle a rage-filled sadness, when she sings opposite Liv Hutchins as Martha, of suffered abuse. And Emily Rohweder and Caleb Holman effectively jump in and out of all the adult roles within the musical’s dark storylines.

While lighting choices aren’t always clear, shadows and silhouettes adds layers to the overall aesthetic. Andrews’ costume design works well to effectively capture details of this punchy and emotional story of morality and sexuality. Though the stakes are higher in Act Two, which focusses on the consequences of the characters’ actions, the outcome is still an ultimately optimistic one as light is shone upon a no-longer bare tree in highlight that hope is still possible for mistakes not to be repeated.

“Spring Awakening” is a complex and daring landmark musical work of beauty, tragedy and hope, full of symbolism and contemplative universal themes around communication and change. Its sensitive material (the show comes with warning as to its inclusion of sexual situations, explicit language and scenes depicting violence and suicide), is handled well in this production, not scandalised or sensationalised, but shared in a way that conveys a clear respect for the original text. And its impact is elevated by the intimacy of the comfortable Ron Hurley Theatre, which allows for its moments of pathos and humour to fly by to its ultimate reclamation message that whoever you are, whatever you’re experiencing, it can be okay.

Photos c/o – Clear Image Photography

Iconic Intentions and then some

Cruel Intentions: The ’90s Musical (David Venn Enterprises)

Home of the Arts

January 20 – 28

“Let’s do this!” Kathryn Merteuil (Kirby Burgess) proclaims as The Verve’s ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ swells over the final scenes of “Cruel Intentions: The ’90s Musical” in recreation of its source material’s iconic conclusion. This musical, created Jordan Ross, Linsey Rosin and Roger Kumble (writer and director of the film of the same name), however, is more than just an on-stage recreation of its 1999 Hollywood namesake.

Filled with throwback hits, it is more of ‘90s jukebox musical arranged around faithful recreation of the cult-hit film’s narrative about two vicious step-siblings, Mertevil and Sebastian Valmont (Drew Weston) who, fuelled by passion and revenge, make a wager for Sebastian to deflower the innocent daughter of their elite Manhattan prep school’s new headmaster before the start of term. As the two set out to destroy Annette Hargrove (Kelsey Halge), as well as anyone else who gets in their way, they find themselves playing a perilous game in what is a modern-day telling of the 1782 French novel “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos , faithful in its recreation of another of its adaptions, “Dangerous Liaisons”.

Things remain true to the film with inclusion of iconic ‘Kiss Me’ type scenes and “silly rabbit” dialogue quips, however, familiarity with the source material is not required to enjoy the high-energy spectacle on stage as, under Alister Smith’s direction, the plot is made efficiently accessible. This is aided by Craig Wilkinson’s striking video design which serves to emphasise the main take-aways from character interactions and allows for a final focus on the damming text of Valmont’s journal. Simple (and seamless) scene transitions keep things moving with smooth blocking allow for, as an example, speedy transitions between four separate conversations as plans fall into place to allow Sebastian’s woo of Annette to occur. And Declan O’Neill’s stunning lighting design heightens key emotional moments.

Storytelling is also enhanced by intertwined placement of appropriately lyric-ed ‘90s era classics with a score that includes  back to back hits, including by Britney, Christina and alike. Indeed, there are many highlights from amongst the score’s different musical personalities. Performing from scaffold above the stage, revealed at various times throughout the show, the band’s musicians (David Youings, Chris Connelly, Anthony Chircop, Michael Chewter, Toby Loveland, Glen Moorehouse and Sam Blackburn) are also given individual opportunities to shine through the versatile set list. Annette’s entrance is to a rocking guitar and drum filled ‘Just a Girl’, while Counting Crows’ ‘Color Blind’ contains contemplative piano to accent the magnitude of Sebastian’s mood late in Act Two. And *NSYNC pop and TLC R&B boy and girl group numbers elicit overwhelming response as clear audience favourites.

Surprisingly perhaps, there is a sophistication to the musical’s score that elevates the show’s craftedness as songs are cut, sliced and melded together, including in a brilliant Act One closing overlapping medley of many of its songs. And Act Two includes a memorable ‘Bitch’ and ‘Losing My Religion’ mashup from Burgess and Weston. Freya List’s choreography also captures the core intent of songs in character revelation and plot progression, with ‘Sex and Candy’ between Blaine (Ross Chisari) and the closeted Greg (Joseph Spanti) who is about to be blackmailed by Sebastian, standing as a playful highlight. And Isaac Lummis’s costume design is all 90s and also of the film, down to even the detail of jewellery and accessories.

There are no weak links in the talented cast of performers who are each given individual moments to shine. Playing a well-known character on stage that someone else has portrayed so iconically in film can come with some expectation, however, Burgess adds her own touches of hurt-people-hurt-people humanity to the scheming seductress Kathryn, stealing the show with her fierce portrayal and rich vocal tones, from her very first ‘I’m the Only One’ appearance which conveys impressive intonation in its Bonnie Raitt like belt.

Weston, meanwhile, gives us a strong ‘Iris’, while Halge makes her following ‘Foolish Games’ heartbreaking in its stirring emotion. Rishab Kern’s (as music teacher Ronald) vocals are also impressive in his share of ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ with his character’s forbidden lover Cecile (Sarah Krndija) when the two are pushed together as unknowing pawns in Kathryn and Sebastian’s game. And though ‘Man! I Feel Like a Woman’ feels narratively superfluous, Fem Belling, as Cecile’s mother, gives it the necessary, empowering vocal oomph.

In a story of highly sexualised characters, Krndija’s more wholesome Cecile is an absolute delight. Always angular in movement, she captures the awkwardness of the quirky character, new arrived and clearly childish, naive, spoiled and inexperienced, making her an easy target to Kathryn’s self-motivated manipulations. And her Boyz II Mean seduction attempt is a hilarity of well-timed physical comedy and perfectly pitched exaggeration.

If opening night is any indication, “Cruel Intentions: The ’90s Musical” is sure to be a popular trip down ‘90s memory lane. Its experience of debauchery (its warning notes the show’s nudity, course language and adult content), discman and a dash of Dawson’s Creek type tunes is at-once glossy and gritty, provocative, but also still somewhat problematic in its narrative. In terms of nostalgia, however, this is pure infectious celebration of an era. You will need to get your guilty pleasure on quickly though as its limited season means that the show will be saying ‘Bye Bye Bye’ before you know it.

Photos c/o – Nicole Cleary

Tudor triumph

Six

QPAC, The Playhouse

December 30 – February 19

“Six” is a worldwide musical phenomenon unmatched in the juggernaut speed with which it has acquired its cult following (especially given the theatre shutdowns of recent years). Arising from humble origins (it was originally conceived as a production for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2017 by Cambridge University Musical Theatre Society students Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss), it now has over 500 million soundtrack streams worldwide, 3 billion Tik Tok views on #SIXtheMusical and two Tony Awards including Best Original Score…. so it comes with some big audience expectations, and they are absolutely met.

The highly anticipated high-octane one act (75 minutes) pop musical is more concert than traditional musical as Henry VIII’s divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived (to use the mnemonic) wives ex-wives take to the stage. These are not, however, the Tudor names, fames and faces we might already know. Instead, this is history overthrown as we are introduced to the stories of the women of his story, divorced, beheaded, died live! The ensuing (and ingenious) framing premise is a contest outlined in its defiant ‘Ex-Wives” opening number; the queen who has had the worst experience (as voted by the audience) shall take the crown as the pop sensation to lead the band.

The show’s seriously catchy soundtrack starts strongly and never lets up. Indeed, its contemporary pop music of layered synth sounds is different to what audiences might usually hear in a musical. Yet, while its punchy tempo and dance oriented sensibility are frenetic, there is light and shade in its multi-styled score (which draws inspiration from a range of modern female artists).

As modest third wife Jane Seymour, (the only one he truly loved) Loren Hunter delivers a heartbreaking Adele-inspired power ballad, ‘Heart of Stone’. Her beautiful voice not only soars in its heights but captures the emotional vulnerability at its core concern over the conditional nature of their love. Meanwhile, group number ‘Haus of Holbein’, that satirises women’s beauty standards in lead into the next-up entrance of Anna of Cleves’ (Kiana Daniele), is a pumping neon-lit rave-like highlight.

The presence of the live ‘Ladies in Waiting’ four-piece band of all female musicians adds another layer to the musical’s ultimate themes of female empowerment. Claire Healy and Heidi Maguire on keys, Kathryn Stammers on drums, Debbie Yap on guitar and Jessica Dunn / Ann Metry on bass, who remain on stage for the duration in add to the pop concert scenario, not only provide the base for a multi-genre soundtrack, but are given their own moments to shine, such as when drum beats are given in the Catherine of Aragon’s (Phoenix Jackson Mendoza) bold ‘No Way’.

Although each talented Tudor Queen turned Pop Princess is given her own number in which to reveal her truth, the performers are all on stage for the entire show. While all six are obviously extremely talented, Kiana Daniele is a clear audience favourite as Anna of Cleves, evoking her edgy badass feminist Queenspiration of Nicki Minaj and Rihanna in ‘Get Down’ revelling in Henry’s rejection of her for not living up the expectation of the portrait of her painted by Hans Holbein, which results in her annulled marriage and consequential lavish independent woman lifestyle. Kala Gare is likewise popular as ‘that Boleyn girl’, Anne, not just in her catchy ‘Don’t Lose Ur Head’, but sorry not-sorry mockery of Aragon and sassy banter with likewise beheaded Howard (Chelsea Dawson). And her play-up of much of the show’s innuendo generates some of the biggest laughs.

While they harmonise together well, each queen also presents a unique colour-coded look, personality and sound. Phoenix Jackson Mendoza kicks things off with a riffing tell of Catherine of Aragon’s story of devotion through a Shakira and Beyonce-inspired number about her marriage annulment and threat of being shipped off to a convent. Her angry refusal to contemplate being replaced means that she is confident that after 24 years of loyal marriage, she has done it the toughest.

Chelsea Dawson, meanwhile, brings a youthful vibrancy to the role of pretty-in-pink Katherine Howard, singing of her alleged affair in ‘All You Wanna Do”, but also having us consider her abuse due to the structures around her. And Vidya Makan gives us a quietly feminist Katherine Parr who, like Angelica in “Hamilton” leaves us with a very musical theatre-ish sounding anthem ‘I Don’t Need Your Love’, chronicle of losing true love, being widowed and lacking any choice in response to a king’s command, before questioning the competition and having her worth defined by him when she herself has done so much.

Characterisation comes not just by each individual queen’s number, but is embedded in every interaction with each other (and us) through knowing looks and alike. And because it is a concert musical rather than a standard book musical, there is no fourth wall, meaning that the queens sometimes interact with the audience. The show is full of one-liners and witty irreverent lines and wordplay in its string together of genius lyrics and its handful of country and city specific mentions aren’t particularly jarring. Its score, too, features clever inset of nursery rhyme type nods in its musical motifs and uniquely styled songs.

While it may all effortlessly come together, everything about “Six” is intricately crafted. Carrie-Anne Ingrouille’s choreography is always snappy in its precise accent actions and in formation movements, meaning that ever performance is vital, even if it is in back-up singer mode. Tim Deiling’s lighting is dynamic in conveying each queen’s themes with colour palette nods without causing rainbows of distraction, culminating in brilliant golden illumination of the final right royal ‘Megasix’ remix mashup of each queen’s solo in assert of their own individuality in take back of their stories. Emma Bailey’s striking set design also works with Gabriella Slade’s already-iconic historically-inspired costumes to authentically create the spectacle of a pumping pop concert.  

Layered in its social satire, this fast-paced modern retelling of the lives of queens for too many years lost in his-story is a fun, cheeky show with some racy content as the Queens tease each other about traumas and abuse. Like soon-to-be-seen “Hamilton”, “Six” talks directly about history (knowing Tudor history is not a prerequisite) and also includes some girl power themes as integral to its storytelling. These are equally positioned rather than marginalised female characters celebrating their own individuality

In the case of “Six”, the ravers really are right. Although succinct, this is a vibrant and dynamic musical with a side of herstory thrown in, making for empowering uplifting and rock solid entertainment that should not be missed. And QPAC’s Playhouse Theatre is an appropriately intimate enough venue to allow its audience to become fully absorbed in the triumph of its infectiously boisterous, celebratory atmosphere.

Photos c/o – James Morgan

Oz anew

The Wizard of Oz (Beenleigh Theatre Group)

Crete Street Theatre

November 18 – December 3

Thanks to its perennially popular 1939 Judy Garland film, “The Wizard of Oz” is iconic. Beenleigh Theatre Group audiences are reminded of this if not during the familiar story of Act One of the musical, then during interval, which features play of a number of Garland songs. Stepping into the acclaimed actress’ ruby slippers is certainly no easy feat, but Madeline Harper does it with aplomb, and this is not the only strength of the company’s final production for 2022.  

Like so many girls her age, Dorothy Gale dreams of what lies over the rainbow. When a tornado rips through her Kansas home, Dorothy and her dog, Toto (very cute Yorkies Peggotty Pickel Hunt and McGinty Hunt), are whisked away in their house to the magical merry ol’ land of Oz, where, on instruction from the Good Witch of the North, they follow the troublesome Yellow Brick Road toward the Emerald City to meet the Wizard, along the way meeting a Scarecrow in need of a brain, a Tin Man missing a heart, and a Cowardly Lion who longs for courage, who are all somewhat familiar.

Before Frank Baum’s wildly imaginative fairytale morphs into a technicolour account, it starts in the bleakness of Kansas prairie farm life where Uncle Henry (Darcy Morris) and stern Auntie Em (Holly Siemsen) attempt to convince young Dorothy of the need to hand over her pet dog Toto after he bites nasty neighbour Miss Gulch (Alison Pattinson)…. until a tornado strikes in impede of Dorothy’s attempt to run away. It is an opening scene full of foreshadowing through introduction of three farm workers, Hunk (Hudson Bertram), Hickory (Michael Mills) and Zeke (Michael Ware), the later Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion’s, and the wonderful Professor Marvel (Bradley Chapman). To their credit, the company takes its time with this and allows emphasis of the parallels with character appearances to come in the future dream world in which trees come to life and there is always threat of lions and tigers and bears #ohmy.

A multilayered approach ensures that the audience is given a fresh take on a story that is still full of familiar moments and music. Attention to detail is evident in Alicia Caruana and Blake Russell’s costume design (especially in the patchwork, straw-stuffed clothing of the clumsy scarecrow), detailed even down to the sparkle of Dorothy’s iconic blue gingham dress. And fluro hyper-coloured costuming works well to capture the essential cheeriness of the muchkin people who welcome Dorothy to their land in celebration of the ding-don demise of their Wicked Witch of the East tormenter.

The fantasy that lies at heart of the story and its transitions in place can post a challenge for smaller companies, however, BTG are up for the task, creatively making use of the whole Crete Street Theatre space to create levels and allow for clever revelation of the yellow brick road to lead Dorothy and her friends to the imperial capital. From-audience appearances are peppered throughout and Holly Leeson’s choreography keeps things interesting as dancers perform as the tornado transition from Kansas to Oz, with aid from effective sound (Chris Art) and lighting design (Design Brett Roberts, Perry Sanders & Chris Art).

Despite being let down by occasional missed microphone cues, members of the core cast all do a stellar job in their respective roles. From the moment she first appears in a puff overdone cloud of smoke, Abby Page conveys all that is good about Glinda the Good Witch of the North. And Alison Pattinson is magnificent as both the intimidating self-important Miss Gultch and then the curiously smoking Wicked Witch of the West, cackling with threats and intention to avenge her sister’s death and retrieve her ruby red slippers from Dorothy. The star of the show, however, is clearly Harper as the story’s headstrong but also kind-hearted young protagonist. Her vocal pitch is amazing and she doesn’t miss a vocal beat. Her muse to little dog Toto of why only bluebirds fly over the rainbow is a strong, soaring reminder of why the work’s signature song is of the most enduring standards of the 20th century, and she shows brilliant dance skills too in Act Two’s lively ‘Jitterbug’ musical number, which was cut from the MGM movie. 

Bertram makes for a delightful first friend to Dorothy, flopping about all over the place as it really stuffed only of straw and accompanying this with appropriately amplified facial expressions, and Mills gives the Tin Man some tender moments. It is Ware’s nerveless Lion, however, that is the clear audience favourite. Hyperbolically pantomimic in his cheeky animated reactions and repeated failed attempts to be the king of the forest, he draws attention in his every scene appearance.

On-point harmonies result in some superb vocal moments, especially in resolution of dissent chords. The 20-piece orchestra, revealed at the rear of the stage once the story lands in Oz is sharp in its sound, especially when showcased in Entracte as we resume the story in the Emerald City where things aren’t actually so wonderful. Strings and woodwinds feature predominantly in the numbers that introduce each of Dorothy’s companions, ‘If I Only Had a Brain, ‘If I Only Had a Heart’ and ‘If I Only Had the Nerve’, but these also includes some lovely brass accents. And when everything combines to happy us towards interval with the quartet’s performance of ‘We’re Off to See the Wizard’, the result is simply joyous. Act Two provides more opportunities for the orchestra, under the baton of Musical Director Julie Whiting to showcase its versatility with the percussive march of witch’s Winkies and avant-garde ‘Merry Old Land of Oz’ opener, which is full of jazzy brass sounds (and even feature of a tap-dance number).

This is an energetic production brimming with talent in its every aspect. It is a charming retelling of a well-known story worth seeing because, because, because of its new takes as much as familiar reminders of why the classic story of Dorothy’s journey is so universally loved. And it is understandable, therefore, as to why its remaining tickets are selling so quickly.

Photos c/o – Creative Street

Scottish songtelling

Islander (Passion Productions)

Pip Theatre

November 18 – 17

“Islander” is a new musical with book by Stewart Melton and music and lyrics by Finn Anderson. The 2022 off-Broadway show is a charming two hander, but an ambitious undertaking given that its music is all a cappella and presented through looping technology created by its performers without a musician in sight as live-mixing and layering voices, and looping technology are used to create its interesting soundtrack. It is a choice that Passion Productions effectively uses to capture the haunting beauty of its obscure island off the coast of Scotland setting, spellbinding its audience as its contemporary Scottish folk/pop-inspired score is tapestried together on stage to conjure experience of its vast ocean isolation, sea wind whips and haunting whale calls.  

The story is a simple one of the community of Kinnen, set to be lost forever as its final services depart. Remaining residents are forced to choose between rebirthing its culture or moving on from their home as part of the mainland government’s resettlement plan. The resulting division is explored though the story bites of the town’s own quirky characters with its two performers, jumping between a vast array of personalities with impressive versatility. It takes a while to settle into its primary storytelling, with backouts startling us in and out of its short early scenes, however, when it does, things soon make sense. Curious Eilidh (Ellie Dawson in a role shared with Niamh Cadoo-Dagley) is the only person her age on the island, so spends a lot of time alone or with her mischievous gran (Paige McKay) and it is through her eyes that things unfold.

In the round staging ensures a sense of intimate story sharing from the outset as the two actors inhabit a wide range of character roles. Dawson’s sassy Breagha, a woman whose pregnancy promises the first baby on the island in years, is a real highlight. And her Scottish accent is excellent in capture of its rolling rs, and ah and oo sounds. Along with their pleasing harmonies, the duo delivers beautiful performances. Dawson, is particularly memorable as the feisty Eilidh who, when staring out to the sea in dream of a new life beyond her lonely island, encounters the mysterious stranger Aaran (Caddo-Dagley) who causes a collision of myth and reality.

It may include limited dialogue around its sounds, however, “Islander” is still about so much, like the role and purpose of cultural storytelling and myth making, as well as the value of connection to history and home. And Director (and Musical Director) Connor Clarke is to be commended for bringing such a curious work to our city’s stage. It is a gorgeous and very accessible work (of just over an hour’s duration without interval) that showcases some impressive performances, both dramatically and musically, and captures the magical journey that storytelling can take you on without moralising too much on its inbuilt themes around social and environmental issues.

Photos c/o – Images by Anderson

Iconic intoxication

The Phantom of the Opera (Lynch & Paterson)

Twelfth Night Theatre

November 10 – 17

Lynch and Paterson’s brand new production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most famous musical begins with atmospheric rumbling sounds befitting its shadowy start. They are, however, barely audible below the audience buzz at opening night of “The Phantom of the Opera”.

The 1986 musical, which is based on the classic novel Le Fantôme de L’Opéra by Gaston Leroux, tells the spellbinding story of a beautiful soprano Christine Daaé (Samantha Paterson) who becomes the obsession of a mysterious disfigured musical genius (Nathan Keen) living in the subterranean labyrinth beneath the Paris Opera House. Its story opens at the Opera Populaire in Paris in 1911. An auction of various memorabilia from the Opera’s past is underway when the auctioneer asks if we remember the story of the Phantom of the Opera. As an enormous chandelier rises above our heads, the auctioneer reveals that it was involved in a famous disaster, connected to the mysterious affair of the Phantom. And thus, the chandelier leads us back to the time of that opera ghost complete with iconic half mask, the rising young singer under his tutelage and the man who loved her. 

The reveal from there is an impressive take into the now well-known story. Expectations are certainly heightened by audience familiarity with, and past experiences of, the record-breaking musical. Indeed, it is an ambitious production, full of staging challenges and Lynch & Paterson’s biggest show yet. Attempt is made to make full use of the relatively small Twelfth Night Theatre stage, as its heights are explored through The Phantom’s lead of Christine to the rafters and then on a small boat to cross a lake in lure to his secret lair in the titular number. There are lots of moving parts to the cinematic aesthetic, in sometimes distracting transition. Lines of sight for some audience members through to the side-of-stage lighting and crew movement detract from pivotal moments like when Christine is irresistibly drawn through the mirror to The Phantom’s first apperance.

A bit cast fills the stage in what is an elaborate production. Still, the ensemble impresses, for example, in Act Two’s opening masquerade ball scene ‘Masquerade’, which is a highpoint of performance and design. The tapestry of harlequin themed outfits is a colourful show of Anita Sweeney’s costume design, enlivened by Jayden Grogan’s orderly choreography. It’s a memorable number too in its contrast to the shadowy candle-lit Gothic atmosphere created by David Lawrence’s set design.

Iconic imagery is important, however, in the case of “The Phantom of the Opera”, it is all about the songs, which are beautifully sung. Kneen makes for a commanding creature of darkness, born with a deformed face and cruelly exhibited in a cage as part of a travelling fair until he eventually escaped and took refuge beneath the opera house. With a commanding stage presence and bold, rich voice,  he perfectly portrays the character’s complexity. His vocal control is exquisite and his faultless delivery of the seductive ‘Music of the Night’ is breathtakingly enchanting. And while his The Phantom is more menacing in Act Two, as his fierce, mesmerising love for Christine morphs into the obsession that determines the dramatic collision of jealousy, madness and passion when Christine’s childhood sweetheart Raoul (Jake Lyle) comes back into her life, there is still also a delicate vulnerability to maintain audience investment. 

This is just one of his many glorious musical moments within the show. ‘Phantom of the Opera’ is magnificent in its musical intensity. Keen conveys tenderness without sacrificing strength and Paterson’s purity is voice is astounding as Christine responds to The Phantom’s request that she sing for him as his angel of beauty.  As The Phantom commands Christine to sing ever higher, Paterson rises to it with her highest notes in the show and her operative voice becomes like a gift.

The lesser-known ‘Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again’ is not only moving but memorable in her hands, as, torn between her love for Raoul and her awe of The Phantom, Christine sings as she visits her father’s grave in search of guidance on the fateful day before a performance will decide her fate. It is as if the role of Christine was written for Paterson and she fills it not only vocally, but dramatically with a performance that appropriately travels between, sweetness, fascination, fear, pity and love. Lyle is also wonderful as Christine’s loyal eventual fiancé. He makes Raoul an endearing hero, particular in his sweetly touching duet with Christine, ‘All I Ask of You’, in which he promises to love and protect her, despite his scepticism about her encounter with The Phantom.

Lloyd Webber’s sensational score is obviously quite operatic in style, but it also maintains the form and structure of a musical throughout. Under Lucas D Lynch’s perceptive musical direction, the orchestra of extraordinary musicians of Cadenza Chamber Players stirs us through its iconic swelling strings of ‘Music of the Night’, in emphasis of its heightened emotions, and reminds us of the reprises, motifs and similar melodies that pepper the recognisable score, including the light tones that counterbalance its dark and turbulent emotional moments.

Musical performances are not all that impress. Tom Dood’s sublime lighting design, for example, hues a scene in rich red as, in the manager’s office, a note is delivered from The Phantom demanding that Christine replace Carlotta (Dominique Fegan), who has been criticised for her lack of performance emotion, as the Countess in the new opera. It creates a striking moment of pre-emptive punctuation as performers all pause in its wash ahead of The Phantom’s appearance.

The beauty is, however, balanced with some humour, such as when The Phantom enchants Carlotta’s voice to reduce it to a frog-like croak during the Opera House’s premiere of “Il Muto. Darcy Rhodes and Lionel Theunissen also add some levity as new opera house managers, Monsieur Andre and Monsieur Firmin, especially in attempted reassurance to the fierce diva Carlotta that she will remain the company’s star, in the song ‘Prima Donna’.

As Opera Australia’s current Melbourne production’s buzz shows, there is an enduring popularity to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s gothic horror romance, and it is no surprise, therefore, that the entire season of Lynch & Paterson’s production is sold out prior even to opening night, such is the musical’s incredible legacy. And, as the audience leaves after standing in ovation even after the house lights have risen, it is with feelings of envy towards those yet to experience the exquisiteness of its sweet intoxication.

Photos c/o – PIF Productions