Many people aren’t aware that there’s more than one musical adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s novel The Phantom of the Opera. Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit’s musical Phantom was composed and raising funds before Andrew Lloyd Webber’s, but shelved after Phantom of the Opera became a huge success. Dawn Kalani Cowle’s production at Ye Olde Rose and Crown marks the UK premiere of Phantom, and with a bigger budget behind it, could give Lloyd Webber a run for his money.
Neither version is extremely faithful to the book, although Yeston and Kopit’s adaptation is the only one to hold the rights to it. So if you’re familiar with either popular versions, Phantom still won’t be everything you expect. Christine (Kira Morsley) is essentially a busker who is recommended to the Opera House for lessons when influential patron Phillippe (Sean Paul Jenkinson) hears her sing. Unfortunately, his friend Carriere (Tom Murphy), the manager of the Opera House, has been sacked, and the new proprietors Carlotta (Pippa Winslow) and Cholet (Andrew Rivera) place Christine in the costume department where the Phantom (Kieran Brown) hears her sing and offers her lessons as a masked maestro. By the time she comes to audition for the company, they can’t deny her talent but Carlotta poisons her drink on opening night so that Christine can’t sing. The Phantom rescues her from the stage, taking her down to his lair where Carriere tries to warn her he’s dangerous, however she is determined that she sees good in him. Until she sees his face.
The plot begins strongly, playing for laughs in the beginning and tears in the ending at the expense of focus. Although I’ll admit that I shed a few tears, this was more for Christine and the Phantom’s fleeting love story, over the well-acted but arduously written scene between father and son, the Phantom and Carriere. Other than the leads, the characters remain sketchily drawn as plot devices or caricatures which are likeable but mean that the storyline lacks integrity. Furthermore, the Phantom’s ‘underlings’ are strange characters that have stepped right out of an amateur show. Excusing this, Phantom is a show that’s carried by a stupendous ensemble.
It might be unfair to compare Phantom to The Phantom of the Opera, or perhaps just plain inevitable, but it really does help to reflect upon the few problems with Yeston’s score that keep it from being quite so popular. Yeston, who has also composed musicals including Nine, Grand Hotel and Titanic, weaves magic with his choral harmonies. The music is the absolute star of this piece, with swirling and intricate melody lines; it’s a challenge to sing and couldn’t be done better. Kieran Brown as the Phantom and Kira Morsley as Christine are absolutely mindblowing talents; Brown has an emotive and commanding voice, that can turn from burdened to biting in a bipolar instant, and Morsley couldn’t sound sweeter if she were an actual songbird. Each song stands alone, but therein lies the problem: where Lloyd Webber reuses material like he’s run out of ideas, the running motifs through his version of Phantom are what make the music memorable, whereas you don’t come out humming along to Yeston’s score.
All Star Productions needs to be forgiven a little for the limitations placed upon them by the small space and presumably small budget. The staging is minimal and best when Cowle embraces simplicity rather than lugging cheap bits of set on and off. Brendan Matthew’s choreography has moments of brilliance, but has a fancy for symmetry which looks a little basic. Altogether however, this is a quick and simplistic production which is effective because the performances are so heartfelt. Everything surrounding it should make it hard to believe in the production, but the cast and music make it impossible not to invest and that matters more than anything else. Phantom is so good it actually hurts.
Phantom is playing at Ye Olde Rose and Crown until 31 May. For more information and tickets, see the All Star Productions website.