Friday, May 20, 2016

Review of Phantom of the Opera (HM's London) 28/04/16



28 April 2016 – The Phantom of the Opera – Her Majesty’s Theatre
Scott Davies (standby), Celinde Schoenmaker, Ashley Stillburn (u/s), Megan Llewllyn, John Ellis, Michael Matus, Christopher Dickins, Jacinta Mulcahy

I found out earlier this year that you can queue for day tickets at Her Majesty’s Theatre on Thursdays for the matinee.  Usually working Thursdays, I wasn’t able to put this into practice at the end of January when it was my (potentially last?) opportunity to see John Owen-Jones as the Phantom before the new actor, Ben Forster, took over.  I decided it would make a memorable birthday to try to get day tickets, so Jamie and I queued up at 8:15 am, being the first one in the queue which by 10:00 had about 25 people in it.  This meant we got middle front row seats, which although they were rather cramped (and we had Polish students behind us who whispered through the entire performance), were pretty memorable.  I’ve never been able to afford stalls tickets at Her Majesty’s Theatre before (and I think the only other time I’ve ever seen the show in the stalls was my second time in Albuquerque, though it’s possible I was sitting in the stalls in Denver, I can’t remember).  Being so close to the stage was very thrilling, and while I worried that it might impact visibility, the only time that I could even claim it did was during the title song (more on that below).  What was the really impressive part, however, was getting to see the detail on the costumes.  Obviously you can see in the programme[1] how ornate and be-sequined they are, but it never really hit home until I was actually looking at them. 

Prologue
I have only recently realized that there are periodic resident directors of the show, which presumably is why I remember (for at least two occasions when I saw the show) the corpse-like lighting on the Auctioneer.  Do you know why I have realized this?  Because it’s the same actor—the same actor, Philip Griffiths, has been playing the Auctioneer and Reyer for 25 years (!!) in 2016.  (I am also quite sure he is playing Reyer in the 25th Anniversary concert.)  Also, seeing them up close, I realized that the porters have to be damn near imperturbable despite the funny BBC Rent-a-beard facial hair stuck on their faces.  There’s not a lot of scope for those roles, but it really is all about the voice for 75% of the theatre—I don’t think you can see any expression on their faces from the grand circle and royal circle.  As Lot 663 was sold, a porter took it past Raoul, and he sort of smirked at it as it went by. “Thank YOU, sir.”  One of the great mysteries of life is why the Robert le Diable skulls get a gasp but this audience (which is probably the most sluggish, unresponsive audience I have ever had at Phantom; shame on them) failed to laugh at all the really funny parts[2].  That’s one reason I’m persevering and writing this review:  I want the cast to know they did a great job!

For the first time EVER, I could see Madame Giry’s costume in this scene.  It was elaborate and looked very warm!  It seemed to consist of an 1890s-style hat with birdcage veil and a big poufy fur wrap.  From the angle at which I was sitting, I could see a steady blue light coming from the bottom of the music box as the porter handed it over.  Is that the radio control?  Now, Ashley Stillburn was the understudy Raoul, and to be honest, he did seem a bit stiff in his portrayal.  Vocally I thought he was quite good.  He was fine as old Raoul.  The Nurse placed her hand on his shoulder as Lot 665 was announced.  “Thank you, again, sir.” When he shouted “Boy” it very much sounded as though he’d said, “Oi!”  He definitely tried to depict some soul-searching to do regarding his mortality at “will you still play / when all the rest of us are dead?”  The Nurse tried to comfort him.  I felt like the Auctioneer was very shouty at “frighten away the ghosts of so long ago with a little illumination gentlemen!!!!”

I was afraid that sitting so close to the orchestra would mean they would be too loud and the singers would be drowned out, but it was okay—the worst that could be said was the floor seemed to shake toward the end of the Overture during crashes of percussion.

Hannibal/Think of Me
Why did Carlotta stroke the fake head so much?  Whose head is it anyway?  I must have known at some point, but I’ve forgotten.  Megan Llwellyn (who I think is Welsh) has a wonderful voice, I had no qualms whatsoever about it.  I did wonder—as I was sitting there in the front row with Carlotta’s bosoms spilling out at me—whether there is any “ideal” Carlotta[3]—plump and the typical Valkyrie, or thin and hard-edged, like Minnie Driver or the first Carlotta I saw, Julie Schmidt?  The Slave Master was the same one I saw two years ago, evidently his name is Simon Rackley.   John Ellis’ (Piangi) voice is great.  I saw him two years ago; if anything, he is even better now.  Although he is quite tall and negates a roly-poly Piangi, I found he had an impressive ability to recede into the background of scenes when necessary.

I really liked the managers in this cast; they were probably the best surprise for me.  I ADORED Michael Matus as Firmin, and there was a warmth and genuineness to Christopher Dickins as André.  André here struck me as Carlotta’s honest-to-goodness fan.  Gareth Snook makes an interesting André, but he has a very fake-show-biz slightly sleazy aspect to his portrayal, whereas I felt Dickins had no malice.  He was, for example, not particularly scuzzy when Meg became prominent in the ballet.  Matus’ fussy Firmin stole many a scene for me.  He seemed uncomfortable with people of artistic temperament.  He also has a mobile and expressive face and great comic timing, always reacting to everything going on.  There’s always a little variation on the managers’ hairstyles dependent on personality, etc., and maybe it was because I had just been looking at Regency portraits in the National Gallery that day, but Firmin appeared to have a Regency-style hairdo glued to his forehead which somehow reflected in the portrayal.  He turned away rather uncomfortably from Piangi when he was introduced (as opposed to some Firmins who just accidentally ignore Piangi).  “Five bars will be QUITE sufficient.”  And Reyer’s coat!  What a dandy!!  Again, seeing it up close was a new experience.

I don’t think Hadrian Delacey was playing Buquet (and I stupidly didn’t get a photo of the cast board).  As Buquet looked like . . . a refugee from the French Revolution. 

André got on his knees for “These things do happen” to take Carlotta’s hands—again, genuinely aggrieved.  “These things do happen?  You have been here five minutes.  What do you know?”  Then she pointed at Firmin.  “And YOU!  You are as bad as him.”  She touched her crown/hairdo like Minnie Driver in the film.  She said in a very exaggerated way as if using air quotes for “DIS TING does not ‘appen!”  There were quite a few laughs for “Ubaldo—Andiamo!”  Actually, this was the first big laugh of the show!  Piangi minced across the stage quite humorously and gave a very late “Amateurs!”  Firmin was very skeptical when they suggested Christine could sing it.  He actually seemed on the verge of hitting Meg after the backdrop fell! “A chorus girl?  HA!” 

Ah, now, here, Celinde Schoenmaker, the relatively new Christine (I was pleased not to get Emmi Christensson—who I liked quite a lot—simply because I wanted to experience a new Christine).  I had mixed feelings about her portrayal, mainly her vocals as her acting choices were quite effective IMHO.  She’s the first Christine I’ve ever seen with an auburn wig, and she’s quite tall—I think she may have been taller than Scott Davies!  It was a very reedy beginning to TOM.  Firmin’s expression before Mme Giry struck with her cane was like “I told you so.”   This was probably the song of CS’ I liked the least.  She was sort of chewing the ends of syllables.  The vocal tone was pure but very pop-ish and oddly irritating from time to time. I couldn’t quite figure out what the deal was—occasionally a husky/nasal sort of thing like Céline Dion, or some other singer I can’t quite pinpoint.  I just didn’t like it personally. 

Ashley Stillburn’s voice reminded me of Patrick Wilson though not quite as warm.  As a bonus, he was reasonably good-looking, rather boy-next-door Raoul.  Usually Raoul has this cascade of pomaded curls to denote him as fop, but Stillburn didn’t, just sideburns.  André rather playfully got him to be less demonstrative after the “Brava!” rather than “Oh don’t do that.”  The cadenza was very powerful and elaborate.  The audience seemed amused by the turnaround effect.

Angel of Music/Little Lotte/The Dressing Room
I had no thoughts whatsoever on “Brava . . .” I did at least know from the call board that Scott Davies was the Phantom (I had only just started following Ben Forster on Instagram and should have put two and two together; he was out of town ergo he couldn’t be the Phantom!).  I didn’t mind this at all as I had wanted to see Scott Davies for a long time, as a Phantom about whom I had heard differing opinions. 

I was close enough to the stage to see for the first time a cute little (silent/quiet) discussion between Christine and Reyer after she took the bouquets backstage.  Alicia Beck was Meg.  Vocally, she was okay, kind of shrill (I’m very hard on Megs).  The duet was nice.   I also reflected here that the Wardrobe Mistress is a thankless part—she stamps on stage only to go again after being handed Christine’s ballet slippers and skirt!  Glorified props mistress!  Mme Giry wasn’t particularly angry for “Meg Giry, are you a dancer?”  Meg looked very proud to be called a dancer, then abashed as she left.  Maybe for time immemorial, after Mme Girys have said, “I was asked to give you this,” Christines have said “Thank you,” but it was the first time I noticed it.

Mme Firmin is also thankless part!  Why is Firmin married and André isn’t?  In this particular cast, Mme Firmin looked very young, so once again I began to wonder how she had ended up marrying Firmin who was older and probably a far from ideal husband.  Maybe it was a companionate marriage.  Maybe she married him for his money and he married her for respectability.  Maybe I overthink these things. They were all quite amused but not sordidly so for “It appears they have met before.”
Christine was quite tender and almost sad about “Father . . . playing the violin.” Beautiful duet.

Christine was very certain and sad about “Well, Father is dead.”  She looked very frustrated with Raoul as he left, very in the vein of the book where a young and naïve Raoul keeps thinking he knows best for Christine.  I did wonder, actually for the first time, why Christine locked Raoul out. (I remembered that each time before the blackout as Raoul shouts “Angel!” that the door almost mockingly opens after he’s banged on it several times, but I always assumed the Phantom had played one of his tricks by locking it and then letting it open after they had disappeared.)  Did she think he would take her to supper by force?  Did she think he might hurt the Angel of Music (in the book, the first thing she thinks when the chandelier falls is that the Voice might be hurt)?  Did she think the Angel might hurt Raoul?  In the film there’s some collusion between Mme Giry and the (quite corporeal) Phantom which looks very dodgy indeed.  Anyone know what’s going on?
 
Scott Davies has a powerful and athletic voice, very, very rarely did it give any evidence of not being 100% perfect.  It reminded me of, among others, Ethan Freeman and Gary Mauer.  CS was rather subdued in this scene except at “Angel, my soul was weak, forgive me” when she looked a little culpable.

Title Song/Music of the Night
This sounded good generally.  The first Phantom double held up his hand up abruptly in front of Christine’s face to make her stop.  The second double on the catwalk at the top was going crazy with the lantern.  What was he looking for/afraid of?  Raoul?  As the lair arose, all we could see in the front row was a blast of fog machine in our faces (including the conductor’s, who seemed unfazed) for almost the whole verse!  Then the boat appeared at the back.  The candelabrums looked good but they were a little hard to see, as was the boat turning around. 

There was a good if not flamboyant hat toss and cloak removal.  SD’s hands were at the side of his mask to slick down his hair.  Here was definitely a hand acting Phantom; he kept them visible and showy at the sides of his thighs much of the time during this scene (and indeed, for much of the show).  The “Sing for me”s were good, quite loud breathing though not panting.   I can’t remember if this actually happened, but my memory is that he went over to the music stand and pressed his arms against it, almost bracing himself on it, during the cadenza.  CS held out her arms on the final note, then afterwards became shocked and embarrassed.  Not necessarily the loss of her sexual innocence, but she definitely felt she had been pushed too far.

SD was very aggressive at the organ.  He stroked the pages of the score, “My music . . .”  He really seemed to value his music as personified in the score, and I don’t know if that is meant to suggest his muse was his all, or that his desire for Christine was personified or uplifted in his music?  Anyway, it was interesting and intense.  MOTN was great other than “soar” which was less than sublime.  At “caress you” he didn’t try to caress her.  That was when he went over to the music stand and pressed against it for sure. When he drove her away from touching his face at the portcullis, she didn’t seem to be scared for very long as she ran across the stage, quickly turning into coquettish Christine.  He made quite a show of putting his arm on her collarbone for “floating, falling”—as if making damned sure he couldn’t be accused of groping her!  He was practically nibbling on her ear for “trust me, savour each sensation”—this was quite sexy, and I don’t remember seeing it like that before.  The dust cover got a bit stuck on the mirror.   “Niiight” was okay, sounded a little off-key and not held for very long. 

STYDI
OMG the robes.  Once again, seeing them up close impressed me with how ornate they were.  I always enjoy how the different Phantoms edit their Don Juan Triumphant score.  SD actually got super frustrated with the score and was like swearing at it.  I know the Phantom (for some anachronistic reason) uses a quill pen, but I can’t remember having seen before that it was black.   

Again, similarly to how Emmi Christensson did it, was half-flirty thing going as CS tried to remove the mask.  Davies reacted with a big scream; the whole “damn you, curse you” bit was very shouty-screamy (as opposed to some Phantom’s voices which ache or crack).  I don’t remember previously seeing that when the Phantom collapses after the last “curse you!” that we basically just get his back and legs (though it’s possible it’s always been staged like this).   A nice little sob, “Oh, Christine.”  CS was good here. She looked revolted for “Fear can turn to love,” and also at “repulsive carcass.”  The Phantom persisted in some sad-sounding crying, and it affected Christine, too.  She was definitely thinking about what to do.  He got much closer to her than most Phantoms do at that stage, and she seemed physically ill at the prospect he would get nearer—very Susan Kay-ish (“I would die if you touched me” etc).  She seemed to decide that the best thing to do would be to give the mask back, though it wasn’t clear whether that was to cover up the nausea-inducing deformity or make him feel better. “Those two FOOLS who run my theatre.”

Buquet was totally unconcerned by Mme Giry’s warning, going like “whatever” at her.

Notes/Prima Donna
OMG Firmin.

He kissed the newspaper after “gossip’s worth its weight in gold.”  André didn’t seem particularly worried that “we have no cast.”  He was like “what’s this?” when handed “it seems you’ve got one too.”  He was further genuinely horrified at “we were hardly bereft when Carlotta left” and at “the dancing was a lamentable mess!” Firmin was enjoying examining the notes—he actually turned it over at “PTO” which now makes total sense.  I was very amused at how annoyed the managers were at being accused by Raoul of abducting Christine.  “HOW should we know?”  “OF COURSE NOT!”  An excellent and funny “Wrote” . . . . . . “Written!”

André was genuinely quite delighted with his “Ah welcome back!” when Carlotta returned.  Carlotta, for her part, was genuinely annoyed but not OTT for “A letter which I rather resent.”  More delightfully dry managers:  “As if he would!” Carlotta looked very satisfied as Raoul read out “Your days at the Opéra Populaire are numbered” and then was trying to get Raoul to shut up with “Christine Daaé will be singing . . .” Firmin actually seemed to think everything was hunky dory with “our meeting is adjourned.”  André was pure fannish genuineness when he cried, “AND ALWAYS WILL BE!”   Firmin was making big, demonstrative hand motions, “the SILENT role!!”  They both got on their knees. 

When Carlotta said to Firmin, “It’s useless trying to appease me,” it was as if she felt she totally saw through him as a completely mercenary man (who wasn’t nearly as into the art side of it as André clearly was, though I think that’s a bit unfair on this Firmin who just seemed to want to deal with as few mishaps as possible in addition to running a lucrative business).  Similarly, when she said to André, “You’re only saying this to please me,” it was as if she meant she understood the kindness behind the flattery but doubted that he really wanted her to sing in Il Muto.  The “We-need-you-too!” was hilariously mechanical, rather Dalek-like!  Firmin painfully got down on his knees and then up again for “Your devotees are on their knees.”  Carlotta and Piangi looked quite happy at “Think of your muse” and shocked when Firmin followed that up with “the queues round the theatre!”

Il Muto
The costumes in Il Muto are so beautiful.  Don Attilo continued with his bonk bonk bonk gestures.  This may be standard, but it’s the first time I’ve seen it—Carlotta got very annoyed with the hairdresser as she was saying “Adio!”—he was putting a mask over her face to powder her wig.  I don’t quite know why she was annoyed.

As with the last Carlotta I saw, I found myself pondering how she could look so different and actually much younger and prettier when wearing the Countess costume.  I think I figured it out, though.  It’s the wig.  The Carlotta wig and Carlotta’s 1880s high-necked costumes age her, whereas the low neckline and powdery lightness of the wig actually make her look youthful.  It’s strange but true.

We could see up Carlotta’s skirt as she embraced “Serafimo.”  There was an interesting interpretation of “Your part is si-lent.  Little toad.” It was as if she was talking to a deaf person or someone who was idiotic.  Davies nailed the maniacal laughter.  From where we were sitting, I had to look directly above me in order to see the Phantom in this scene, and indeed, he seemed to look right down at me at “Behold!”  Firmin looked like he was having a heart attack and/or an ulcer at,“It was an accident.  Simply” (you know) “an accident.”  Great stuff. 

Rooftop/AIAOY/Reprise
As suggested before, Stillburn was a little bit wooden in his portrayal, not terribly convincing on “There is no Phantom of the Opera!”  One the other hand, CS was insulted, “Raoul, I’ve been there!!”  She also seemed quite disgusted by the memory, even before she got to, “Raoul, I’ve seen him!”  She was a bit less passionate at “Yet his voice . . .” than some Christines.   The song itself was nicely sung, a good rendition, and well-characterized.  She sang, “All I want is freedom” as if it was a bashful confession.  Possibly a fluff at “Share each day with me.”  There were some very cute multiple flirtatious kisses right before “I must go.”  It was interesting—after “Wait for me, Raoul,” she heard him say, “Christine, I love you,” she actually seemed to decide something, then, and there, as if up until that point she wasn’t prepared to run away with Raoul.  One had to look directly up to see the Phantom in the angel.  The rendition of this song was not at all to my taste, kind of petulant and whiny. 

Masquerade
André’s skeleton costume got no laugh—COME ON!  As said above, the bit parts in the show, which perhaps cannot be seen very well far away, come alive in the front row.  The footman serving drinks—OMG, what a supercilious expression on his face throughout “Masquerade”!  I wondered how I would find the scene in the front row, and I have to say it was stunning and impressive.  I could actually hear the monkey’s band and could see the man at the top of the stairs (the one who makes it possible for the Red Death to appear) both times.  Raoul was slightly aggressively annoyed with Christine:  “Then (FREAKIN’) LET them see!”  When Red Death appeared, his hands were at the top of his thighs on the outside as he came down the stairs and menaced.  Meg’s reaction shots as she turned away in fear were powerful.  Finally, I understand why everyone is whispering, “Christine . . . Christine,” basically warning her to stay away from the Phantom as she is trapped in deer-in-headlights.  The double was going a bit nuts with the jaw movements of the skull mask before he disappeared

Notes II/Sitzprobe
No rolling staircase noise!  Hooray!  Raoul was most intrigued and emphatic on,“A composer?”

The managers tiptoed away for “I’ve managed to assign a rather minor role . . .” Carlotta played “The things I have to do for my art” as honest and not diva-ish.  Piangi really tossed the score for “gibberish art!”  I was surprised at the subdued quality of Christine here.  The managers and Raoul were not particularly persecuting Mme Giry for “Help us / on his side?”  For “She’s mad,” Carlotta made a “mad” gesture, not vicious or sympathetic, matter-of-fact.  André and Raoul helped Christine into the chair and then back again as she sat down.  She got quite emotional for “He’ll always be there singing songs in my head!!”  “I can’t.  I won’t do it.” Interestingly, and just as I was thinking the opposite (LOL), Christine seemed to be nodding along and agreeing with Raoul at “You said yourself . . .” and also a slight hint of all that “man” entails.   She also agreed with him for “don’t think that I don’t care.”

While Christine was singing Aminta’s part, Carlotta was following along in the score, not so much making fun as trying to find fault with her, quite literally “she doesn’t have the voice.”  The guy laughing was very funny – “NEARLY . . . but no.”  Carlotta got very cowed for “Can you be certain of that, Signora?” “Those who TAN-TAN-TANgle with Don Juan!” Carlotta swatted Reyer in the butt with the score!  Does she do that every time?! 

Graveyard/WYWSHA/Wandering Child
WYWSHA was, in my opinion, CS’ best song.  During the violin intro, she put her hands over her face.  She held “NAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAME!”, though I have since learned this is a recent London Christine thing.  I was surprised to find the graveyard set was beautiful close up.  CS didn’t wait long while the bells rang to start singing “Little Lotte . . .”  “You were warm and . . . GENTLE.”  She was tearful for “Help me say goodbye.”

By that token, she was quite visibly upset for “Wildly my mind beats against you!” and did not notice or care about Raoul.  A beautiful “I am your Angel of Music . . .” Interesting emphasis on “Whatever you MAY believe, this man this thing.”  They were already basically gone for “Don’t stop . . .” There was a wonderful, anguished “DON’T GO!”  This followed by quite an angry “Now let it be war upon you both!”  I don’t know what I was expecting, but the momentary blaze of the fire at the end of this scene was almost blinding at such close range! 

PONR
Once again, the little roles—the policeman/marksman in the pit was very near to us, and really going for it –“How will I know?”  This Passarino looked so young!  A great laugh from Piangi/Don Juan—really naturalistic but evil. 

The song itself was well-sung, though in performance it was a little disappointing, given that Davies was such a hand actor.  There was no panting, no stroking, nothing out of the ordinary, really.  As she pulled up the cowl, he got quite angry at her, sort of growling, then sort of weighing up his options, actually apparently seeing the managers in the wings and realizing he couldn’t successfully escape that way. Christine looked devastated when he began singing her own words back to her; that was very effective.  He seemed to come upon the ring thing as a sudden flash of inspiration—it was very sweet and affecting and full of pathos.  Short though it was, this little “Say you’ll share with me . . .” was possibly my favorite Davies scene in the whole show.

Down Once More/Final Lair
“Down Once More” was shouty-screamy.  He was quite physically rough with her, she looked as if she had either passed out in the boat or was shielding her face from him with her forearms.  After the sublimity of the “Say you’ll share with me . . .” I was surprised that the “Why . . . Whyyyyyhhhhyyy?” was possibly a little OTT. 

The Ratcatcher bit made no sense at all, what is the point of even having it in the show?  Mme Giry just seems to scream for no reason.  I thought I had a real epiphany moment when I thought I could see the Shade in the wings, but I was wrong—it was just one of the pursuers actually waiting in the wings.  No one seemed to care about Raoul jumping off the bridge—sometimes audiences are quite impressed.

She was so disgusted for “joys of the flesh” and seemed quite annoyed that he seemed to think (delusionally) that his face was the cause of all the problems.  “Scrrrap of clothing.”  He really turned her around for “Turn around and face.”  He was looking around for the final touch and found the bouquet, which he arranged.  He was shocked and devastated when she said, “It’s in your soul.”  When Raoul arrived, the Phantom was twitchy with his hands at the throne, “Your luuuuver makes a passionate plea!” The Phantom got very agitated when Raoul shouted “I love her!”  Seated in the throne, he didn’t turn around for “the world showed no compassion to me.”  “LET ME SEE HER!”  The portcullis barely seemed to rise, but maybe it was the angle from which I was looking.  Right before the Phantom sang, “Monsieur, I bid you welcome,” Christine seemed to be trying to show Raoul the way out, but Raoul was too focused on challenging the Phantom.

At “This is the choice!” the Phantom went over to the organ, again caressing the score on the music stand.  He looked completely devastated at “the tears I might have shed” as if he realized he’d bungled his chance, that he should have appealed to her compassion first and foremost instead of making this ludicrous ultimatum. “Too late for turning back” was said as if almost to himself.  Christine was very emotional for “you deceived me” and on her knees for “I gave my mind blindly.”  A very angry, “YOU TRRRRRY MY PATIENCE!!!”, then more calm at “Make your choice.”  As she waited for his decision, he was turned away, hands twitching.  You could see the gears turning in CS’ mind, she did actually have to think about what she was going to do.  Wow, the kissing looked great—he touched his lip as if unable to believe it.  The moment after the kiss was very drawn out.  She kept pleading with him, though I couldn’t understand what she was actually saying.  He was very into threatening Raoul with the candle—which seemed to scare Raoul although it doesn’t make a lot of sense—he’s going to set his hair on fire or what?

 “Go now and leave me!” was not my favorite rendition ever, a bit OTT.  Lovely emphasis on “Paper faces on parade.”  He was so happy when she returned, she was having a really hard time—she was trying to hand back the ring, and he wouldn’t take it.  During the AIAOY reprise as they were fading away in the background, he sobbed throughout, still holding the ring out and not wanting to return it to his finger.  As they left, he ran after her, staggering, as if to return the veil?  Or something? I wasn’t quite sure, but it was interesting to see the Phantom returning to a rather child-like state.  (Though I do miss the “I love you”s repeated which the US tour Phantoms used to do . . .)  The final note was excellent.  Wow. 

As I said before, I was ashamed of the audience—they were quite unresponsive, you could tell the applause at the end just wasn’t sparkling with electricity.  So I am sorry about that.  It was a very good performance, and I enjoyed it a lot. 



[1] It being my birthday, I splurged a little (but not a lot; combined they cost £9) to buy both programmes, the new cast one (which is lovely and has text I haven’t read before given I haven’t bought one of these programmes in 15 years) and the Her Majesty’s Theatre one. 
[2] I had a theory about this later.  I think maybe 50% of the audience were not native English-speakers, so possibly a lot of it went over their heads. 
[3] I had another brainwave while watching Wendy Ferguson in the role in the 25th Anniversary Concert that took me back to the Rhapsody on Leroux days and that wonderful book-length fan fiction I read about how Carlotta was the real Little Lotte. 

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Forever



We came to Forever the ABC TV show in a roundabout way that was, on reflection, probably a good thing.  Had we been watching it real-time over fall 2014 and spring 2015, we would have suffered the anguish of trying to appeal its cancellation and ultimately failing.  On a trip to the US in October 2014, we caught what we didn’t know then was the second episode, DVR’ed on a relative’s machine; through word-of-mouth, we had been recommended the show.  In the same trip, we caught what we didn’t realize was episode 10.  On another trip in March, we caught episode 17.  It helped that all of these episodes were pretty good, episode 2 (in my opinion, and in retrospect) one of the best of the season, and episode 10 with a killer climax. I admit I’m partial to the modern DVD box set method of TV consumption, which can allow you to binge-watch or not, according to your preference or mood.  It’s to its credit that Forever worked well as a binge-watch, that despite its reasonably formulaic quality, this didn’t threaten the integrity of the show and indeed, ramped up suspense to a near-frenzy pitch, for me at least.  

Forever is, to sum it up in an easily digestible format, about Henry Morgan (Ioan Gruffud), a doctor who, by 2014, has been alive for over 200 years.  He was shot and drowned in 1814, and every time he’s been killed since then, he pops back up, alive and naked, in the nearest body of water.  By 2014, he’s taken a job at the New York Medical Examiners office, a role that suits him well and puts his many years’ observational skills to good use.  To such good use, in fact, that after he helps solve at least one case for NYPD detective Jo Martinez (Alana de la Garza), they become a team.  They are joined by her colleagues Mike Hanson (Donnie Keshawarz) and Lt. Joanna Reece (Lorraine Toussaint) as well as junior pathologist Lucas (Joel David Moore).  Henry’s friend and confidant is Abe (Judd Hirsch), with whom he shares a house (complete with secret basement lab) and antiques store.  Another important character in the story is New York City, the backdrop for countless adventures which up the ante visually and in the narrative[1].

WARNING:  POSSIBLE SPOILERS ALERT – I will try to signpost big spoilers but cannot guarantee the following won’t contain small spoilers that you would learn, for example, in the first two episodes

That Forever succeeded with me personally is a bit of a surprise, given that I don’t really like police procedurals (unless, I suppose, they have some odd anachronistic element like, for example, Ashes to Ashes, about which I had the same devotion); to be honest, I don’t much like US network TV, given its general reliance on formula, its lack of adventurousness, its cookie-cutter characters, and its pat assumptions.  It cannot be argued that Forever doesn’t rely on a formula, and one that gets cemented pretty quickly.  Each episode gives you a case of the week + dollop of flashback + usually something contributing to the overall narrative arc, the mystery that focuses on who and what is Henry Morgan.  The mystery of the week is usually pretty well-written, but the brilliance, I suppose, is the integration of the flashbacks, which give insight both large and small into the life of a man forced into situations most of us mere mortals can only imagine.  

It’s been often said that the crux of a successful TV show is “the gang”; to that end, are Forever’s characters mere types?  The relationship between Abe and Henry is completely unique and powerful in its uniqueness.  Henry and his one-time wife Abigail, a nurse, found Abe as a baby in 1945 in Europe’s concentration camps.  In adopting him, Henry has given Abe an exceptional vantage point as he grows older but his father does not; many characters eventually assume that Henry is Abe’s son.  This means they are protective of each other, and their interactions can range from that of contemporaries to Abe’s disgust with the “old man”’s old-fashionedness (he can’t appreciate jazz, doesn’t have a cell phone, doesn’t use a computer, and so on).  Abe has to rescue Henry when he turns up naked in the East River after dying[2], and they share a bond over Abe’s disappeared adopted mother, a thread that isn’t resolved until the final episode.  This is underlined by seeing Abe at different ages in the flashbacks, from a baby to a child (1955) to a teen (1965) to a young man and then a middle-aged man (1985). Judd Hirsch, one of the first of the regulars to be cast, is perfect for the role.

Henry—winningly played by Ioan Gruffud—is himself sufficiently interesting to carry the weight of the show; classically handsome (and with the kind of hair that lends itself perfectly to successive historical periods), beautifully able to express emotions, and with good comic timing—Forever is, despite all its moody trappings, marginally a comedy.  There are multiple references to Henry’s similarities to Sherlock Holmes, epitomized by his “Sherlock Scan.”  To be honest I must be one of the few people who haven’t hopped aboard the Sherlock bandwagon, in any form, so I’d be much happier if we could drop the notion Henry Morgan inspired Conan Doyle to write Sherlock.  Furthermore, I normally can’t stand the ubiquitous TV custom of monologues from the characters that offer moral bookends to the action onscreen; yet from a 200-year-old, it seems less pretentious somehow.  I think it’s hard not to be charmed by Henry and his eccentric ways; like the song goes, he’s the Englishman in New York[3].  Furthermore, as his moral dilemmas pile up, it’s hard not sympathize with his (completely fantastical) predicament.  

Nevertheless, in the light of long-lived wanderers (such as, appropriately, Captain Jack Harkness), Henry has stayed a remarkably decent human being whose heart is always in the right place and whose desire to help is genuine.  He is pleasant and seems to enjoy the finer things in life (from food and wine to music and art).  Something must have inspired him in the early decades of the 19th century to become a doctor; his wealthy mercantile background could have made him simply a gentleman.  As the incarcerated priest in “Diamonds Are Forever” seems to indicate, Henry’s curse/affliction/gift seems destined for some purpose.

Henry’s more mundane colleagues at NYPD are less complex, though the format of the series seems to limit character development.  Mike Hanson and Lucas are played mainly for laughs, and I would have liked to have seen an episode skewed toward Lucas to make him more than the ultimate fan-boy (though this facet of his character is acknowledged and subverted a number of times, most memorably in “The Frustrating Thing About Psychopaths” as his knowledge and devotion to graphic novels becomes crucial to the plot and also serves as provocation for the complicated ethics of that episode).  That “Punk Is Dead” is able to tell us some new things about Hanson is mainly down to production team and fan response.  This is true of the “tough cop in charge,” Lt. Reece, whose personality breaks free from time to time (most notably in “6 AM”) but mostly remains a type.   I was hoping we’d get to see some flashback to her as a cop on the beat, and evidently many of the deleted scenes in the episodes served to flesh her out.

When I dropped in on episodes 2 and 10, I felt pretty cynically toward Jo Martinez.  She looks like a Disney princess made flesh (as Henry himself points out, her proportions make her particularly attractive), and I felt like this relationship was the height of predictability.  However, I was wrong.  I have been used to some slow-burners in series before, but none quite so slow as this one.  It is allegedly not even certain that Jo and Henry (or “Mortinez” as the shippers are calling them) would have become a couple in season 2 or ever.  Martinez still tends ever-so-slightly toward character shorthand, and I would have liked to have seen an episode that focused on her character development without having to do with her dead husband or her n’er-do-well father (her Bechdel test triumphs only by her complete devotion to work).  Strangely—and this may not be a good thing—her character comes alive a bit more when she is romanced by millionaire hotelier Isaac Monroe (think Billy Shipton in “Blink”) in “Dead Men Tell Long Tales” and “Best Foot Forward.”  

Henry’s romantic entanglements are more mixed; I found Iona Payne, the dominatrix therapist, slightly irritating in her first episode “The Ecstasy of Agony” though she was more rounded as a character in “Memories of Murder” and I wasn’t totally against the idea of her and Henry (okay, so I am a bit of a “Mortinez” myself).  

Henry is fascinated by death, not through a morbid interest but because he would like to understand his condition—and perhaps die someday.  From the first episode, he becomes aware that he may not be alone, as his mystery caller purports to be a 2,000-year-old immortal.  The situation throws Henry into a panic; as he observes to Abe, in the past when his trail has been discovered, he has moved away and outlived his accuser.  With “Adam,” this proves impossible, leading us down an inevitable path riddled with tension. 

WARNING:  BIGGER SPOILERS AHEAD

I was very pleased to find out that Adam was being played by an underrated[4] actor, Burn Gorman, who I suppose was chosen for the role for, among other things, his ability to play more-English-than-the-English harmless[5] as well as stone-facedly-evil-but-somehow-American-accented psychopath.  The suspense ramped up by “The Man in the Killer Suit” and “Skinny Dipper” was so great that I couldn’t imagine where the series was going (and with half of the season to go!).  “Skinny Dipper” must rank as one of the most un-Christmasy Christmas episodes of all time, though the look on Henry’s face as Adam is finally revealed (as the mild-mannered, tea-sipping psychologist who totally manipulated Henry), is absolutely shocking and terrifying.  

I did wonder if the final episodes were going to be able to deliver on the heights we’d achieved in the pilot, “Look Before You Leap,” “The Night in Question” (which drops some exquisite bombshells about the disappearance of Abigail) and “The Last Death of Henry Morgan.”  While I was a bit disappointed that Henry would resort to cheaper and cheaper tricks when faced with dire situations, and while I felt “The Last Death . . .” was sliiiightly less gripping than “Skinny Dipper,” it did tie up some loose ends nicely as a bookend to the rip-roaring pilot.    Forever ends in a way that could easily be picked up again later, though I was impressed at the way Henry chose to deal with Adam in their final confrontation.  

Reportedly, all of the cast seem to have appreciated the history embedded in the series and this served in part to attract them to their roles.  This is part of what delighted me about Forever and made me a devoted fan.  Certainly, the strokes are broad, but they are focused on two Big Issues:  the Holocaust and slavery.  The former is embodied in Abe but comes to a head in one of my favorite episodes, “Hitler on the Half Shell,” which, while not excusing the atrocities of the Nazi regime, shows that evil is unpredictable and not absolute.  The audience cringes in horror as Adam shows up at Abe’s Antiques; after what Adam tells him, Henry has to accept that even “evil” has aspects of grey.  This episode sees Abe identify his birth parents for the first time, which is touching.  

The latter is tied directly to Henry’s identity and immortality, sensitively fleshed out, I thought, in “Dead Men Tell Long Tales.”  Henry is in this sense startlingly modern in his outlook, as he berates his father for involvement in the slave trade and dies on the Empress of Africa trying to save the life of a slave.  It comes as a rather shocking further revelation that he was going to stage a slave revolt on the ship and fears that his death caused the destruction of the ship and death of the 300 people on board.  In “Dead Men Tell Long Tales,” it is rather miraculously proven that his efforts did allow the slaves to escape to freedom (Canada?).    

Madness is also a theme of Forever, mainly in “The Ecstasy of Agony” and “Social Engineering” as this introduces Henry’s first wife, Nora.  In a subversion of the literary motif, it’s Nora who puts her husband in an asylum and apparently suffers no qualms; it isn’t clear what she thinks of his escape and disappearance a year later, but the past comes back to literally haunt Henry in 1865.  Working at a London hospital, Henry is discovered again by the aged Nora, though her remorse over his confinement leads to tragedy.  I was surprised that the fact Henry consented to his first wife being confined to an asylum in poetic justice of his previous plight got so little examination, especially in a quite rigorous episode like “Social Engineering.”  There’s room for a lot of historical periods dramatized weekly, though the fallow periods give room for thought.  

I’m sincerely glad I got to watch this show, and I hope you will considering watching it, too.  I hope it will come back for another series someday! 


[1] Though one wonders if the scale of the show contributed to an expense that was an element in the show’s cancellation?
[2] It’s never quite clear how Abe knows.
[3] It’s interesting to me that Gruffud’s accent is allowed to go Welsh as much as it likes but he’s always described as the ultimate Englishman.  That’s a journal article in itself, representing nationalism in Forever.
[4] Though he seems to be getting a lot more work recently and is playing more three-dimensional characters, though it would be nice to see him actually play a hero.
[5] Quite similar to his role in Pacific Rim, actually!