Monday, January 30, 2012


originally written 28/05/11

I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that some of the best Doctor Who audios are the Companion Chronicles. Which is all the more impressive given what limitations these stories have to work within. They are not “full cast” recordings nor are they talking books (which for the most part I find too boring; I would rather actually read the book). To me they demonstrate the triumph of radio art at its best. They seem uniquely suited to historical Doctor Who, which is perhaps why I like them so much. Frostfire sets the bar high.

I’m one of the few fans who actually likes Vicki; most could take her or leave her. I feel similarly about Steven (though with one important distinction: I fancy Steven and I identify with Vicki). Therefore, when there’s any opportunity for that group in the TARDIS, I generally rate it higher than most would. Marc Platt, whether he’s a Vicki fan or not, has given her such a delectable tale that it immediately deepens her story. Marc Platt’s other audios have been full of great stuff but have sometimes not completely pulled together; in Frostfire, he throws in the sort of Victorian menagerie that made “Ghost Light” so unusual and arresting (if sometimes incomprehensible). I had to keep grinning as I listened to it.

Atmospherically, and this is due as much to Maureen O’Brien, director Mark J. Thompson, and composer Lawrence Oakley as it is to Marc Platt, Frostfire has beautiful moments and creates a poetry seldom obvious in Doctor Who. The Doctor, Steven, and Vicki arrive during the last Frost Fair in 1814 where they are befriended by aristocratic Sir Joseph and his wife Lady Georgiana, and walk into a cave of Curios, where both Vicki and Georgiana are prey to the seductions of a mysterious frozen egg. Jane Austen next arrives and meets her greatest fan, the Doctor, punches a fire-breather, and dances the Sir Roger de Coverly with the Doctor. She also makes Steven alternately the beau of London society and a laughing-stock. She and Vicki venture to a frosty cathedral with the help of chimney-sweep Jem, and it’s Miss Austen who saves the day. (Platt boldly summarized high Victoriana, as an impression, in “Ghost Light”—he does the same for the Regency here.)

And all this relates to Vicki, now Lady Cressida, sitting in the dark of a Carthiginian temple reading her account to a sinister being known only as the Cinder. All I can say is, Steven Moffat, eat your heart out.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Meet Me on 34th Street

While researching the Advent calendar, both Glancy and Restad referred to Meet Me in St. Louis, though in reading about it, I didn’t think it sounded very much like a Christmas film. I had a similar feeling while watching Holiday Inn, which was enjoyable, surprisingly meta-, and very funny. Like Holiday Inn, Meet Me in St. Louis spawned a classic and popular Christmas song, and that is probably the real reason the two are now associated with Christmas. What is even more remarkable is that MMiSL’s song, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” is sung by Judy Garland to a crying young girl—how could such a seemingly downbeat song give the movie such fame?

MMiSL was produced, like Holiday Inn, during World War II, and both of them share a true feel-good factor. It must have had something, though, that transcended just a mid-War pick-me-up, as demonstrated by the ovation given by the audience of the BFI Southbank cinema on 29 December 2011, 67 (!!) years after the film was made. While Holiday Inn is about escapism (quite literally—Bing Crosby’s character is so weary of showbiz he escapes to rural Connecticut), MMiSL works an extremely powerful nostalgia that Holiday Inn’s (sort of) sequel, White Christmas, would try to invoke, and which greets us now when we watch It’s a Wonderful Life, though at the time it was too close to the bone.

From the beginning, it’s extremely difficult not to get swept up in the sunny optimism and cheerful tunes, not to mention the incredible costumes and sets, in MMiSL. The Smiths of St. Louis, MO, are an upper middle class family in August 1903. Somewhat unusually (It’s a Wonderful Life follows George Bailey’s life story, not his wife Mary’s domestic story), the film doesn’t follow the escapades of father Alonzo, a big-shot lawyer with a very traditional attitude toward what his home and hearth should do for him, but instead, his immediate family who live in the honking huge house on the hill. There’s young Agnes, who enters the film having gone for a swim and singing “Meet Me in St. Louis,” which her grandpa quickly picks up from her. Her mother and the maid, Katie, are making ketchup in the kitchen. In comes older sister Rose and younger sister Esther, both who are worrying about boyfriends, and little Toohey is helping with the ice deliveries. It says a lot that the first plot obstacle is a phone call from NYC.

With a calculated appeal to the audience of the film (mid-war, most of the audience would be women), as well as the mundane concern of using as few sets as possible, the vast majority of the film takes place inside the house or directly outside it. Though I would not wish to belittle the emotional truth of the problems the Smiths face, to a generation experiencing war, deprivation, separation, and loss, their lives must have seemed incredibly laid-back and charming. For all that we can tell, Rose and Esther spend their time helping their mother, flirting, playing tennis, and taking carriage rides. What kind of schooling they attend is not clear, but compared to the complicated lives of teenagers in the 1940s, much less those of the 2000s, their routines are lackadaisical. Katie and Alonzo are the only ones to earn a wage, and even when Alonzo angrily points out to the family that he supports them all, it never seems to occur to anyone that they could help economically—I’m sure it just wasn’t the done thing at the time, their stations are above that kind of thing (plus, Rose especially but also Esther are probably expected to contribute by marrying well; strangely, their brother Alonzo Jr has little presence at all in the film).

MMiSL revels in presenting technology that would have been new(ish) in 1903. The trolley gets its own song; the electric light gets its own scene. The telephone is, as I said above, the first plot obstacle. The reason for the setting is the St Louis World’s Fair of 1904, which, as Alonzo points out, people are already touting in August 1903. And yet, these new technologies don’t interfere with the depiction of the family as sacred. Each section of the story has deliberately selected the most heart-warming middle-American memories for each season. The hot summer is abuzz with swimming, tennis, sitting out on the porch, delivering ice, taking cold baths, a gentrified barn dance—the only thing that’s missing is the Fourth of July (which is notable by its absence, especially considering it was a focal point of Holiday Inn). My favorite sequence took place on Halloween, which again is significant given that it was chosen rather than Thanksgiving (though in a sense it makes sense, as the feast of misrule, because that’s when Alonzo brings home the news that will break up the family). Halloween is glorified, all the way from the genteel parlor of the adults (that cake and ice cream scene, my God!), to Toohey’s epic trick-or-treat. The traditions of the present-day Halloween are subsumed by true mischief-making, and it almost feels anthropological. The section ends with a heartfelt duet by Alonzo and his wife on the piano.
The representation of Christmas is surprisingly minimal, due partly to plot considerations but partly to an Edwardian American Christmas that differs from the Dickensian norm we have all associated with the period. The emphasis isn’t on children; in fact, the characters are so busy on Christmas morning they almost forget their presents. The emphasis is on Esther, Rose, and their brother at a Christmas Eve dance. There is a melodramatic scene outside in the snow which results in Esther’s engagement, but indeed, more emphasis is placed on snowy pursuits like building snowmen than spiritual or secular Christmas.

This is because the Christmas scene is the climax, the moment for redemption, as Alonzo decides not to move the family to NYC even if he has to lose his job. To call such a spontaneous act unconsidered would be heartless, but the most dated thing about MMiSL is the perfectly resolved ending. Rose and Esther can marry their beaus without losing them in NYC; Toohey, Agnes, Grandpa, Katie, and Mrs Smith won’t lose their friends and be unhappy in a tiny apartment with no yard. Alonzo is the only one who seems to be sacrificing anything, although how the family will survive financially is left both open and seems insignificant when, by spring 1904, the whole family is benefiting from living in St Louis. Although the film is so anchored with nostalgia, I was enjoying the characters so much that a cop-out like this was only slightly preferable to tragedy.
Miracle on 34th Street was another Christmas classic that I watched for the first time this year, and its subject was much more tied to Christmas—nevertheless, it wasn’t quite as Christmas-y as I was expecting. I wondered why Alfred in the film hadn’t been more touted as the hero. Kris Kringle, of course, gets his dues for being a kind and caring jolly old elf; Brian Gailey, the semi-suave hero who isn’t afraid to don an apron and help out in the kitchen, gets his dues for being a pinnacle of the law profession. But I wanted to know more about Alfred, the Macy’s janitor who gets a sense of humanity by playing Santa Claus at the YMCA. What a great character.

Before there was Mulder and Scully, there was Brian Gailey and Doris Walker. Brian plays the believer, Doris is the realist. On the surface, this would seem like a triumph for feminism; Doris is a self-sufficient divorcée successfully balancing a high-powered job with a conventional household and raising her young daughter. However, by default she is the one to be proven wrong, and therefore if her attitudes towards realism are misguided, how difficult is it to make the jump that the filmmakers at least might consider her other self-reliant traits to be likewise misguided? The upshot of the film is that she and Brian are going to get married; Susan, Doris’ daughter, will get a father-figure. Will Doris continue working once she is married? Or will she bow to convention and become a stay-at-home mom? Besides, any notion that Doris is fully liberated is tainted by the obvious suggestion that the reason for her disillusionment is because Susan’s father broke her heart. Therefore, the film feels a tad antifeminist.

It’s also sort of anti-psychologist, like its counterpart The Santa Clause, which lambasted psychology in the guise of Neil, the child’s ultra-realist step-father. In that film, Neil took on Doris’ role and ended it believing in the reality of Santa; a much less positive fate was in store for the Macy’s psychologist. Here was such a case of unstinting villainy you really had to wonder why. Obviously the man’s insecurities were piqued by Kris Kringle’s attempts to psychoanalyze him back, but by making him the real villain, in proxy for Doris who was not really a villain, an undeniable point had been made: magic and science cannot coexist, and the modern world has too much of the latter.

On the eve of the US postal service’s demise, it is important to reflect that Kris Kringle’s salvation was found in the form of children’s letters delivered to the jolly old elf while on trial. (Personally I preferred the coup de grace from the remake; the argument is made, swiftly, that if the US can print legal tender with the words “In God We Trust” then faith in something invisible can be sanctioned.)

Monday, January 2, 2012

Phantom of the Opera 2011

Phantom of the Opera ~ Her Majesty’s Theatre, London ~ December 31, 2011

I really have no excuse now. I wanted to see Phantom in its 25th anniversary year, as I worry every time I see it, it will be the last time. The performance was sold out, and while seeing the evening performance would have been really romantic, the matinee was probably better from all points of view. I didn’t check the cast board when I entered, which was really dumb. I also hadn’t checked the casting on the website for a couple of weeks, so I expected to see John Owen-Jones, a legendary Phantom who had returned to the role for a time. However, the casting had changed over to Earl Carpenter, who I had seen in 2005. I was therefore very lucky that both Carpenter and his alternate were away, as I got to experience a Phantom played by a Swing. I don’t know how often Simon Shorten has been able to perform the Phantom role, but it was quite an exciting experience to see someone relatively new to it. And good for him! I was also really looking forward to seeing Sofia Escobar in the role of Christine, and I certainly wasn’t disappointed. I think the girls in the row in front were diehard phans because I heard them discussing Simon Shorten (charitably) during the interval.

The seats were slightly better than the last time we saw it as more of the stage was visible, much of the peripheral stuff was very easy to see, but unfortunately, the girl in front of me’s head blocked Christine during “Music of the Night” and the Phantom during “Stranger Than You Dreamt It” and the Final Lair.

I had a much better view of Raoul (Killian Donnelly) than previously, and the first thing I thought was: Professor Travers! The Auctioneer was very loud, that’s all I have to say about him. “NEW ELECTRIC light!” he shouted. “ . . . FRIGHTEN AWAY THE GHOST . . . with a little illumination, gentlemen!!!” That said, he looked normal. I think Raoul was sort of patting his heart during the early part of the auction. “Boy!” he wheezed so that the Porter brought the music box. His first few lines sounded very Colm Wilkinson, which was strange. The Robert le Diable skulls were looked at with some interest but did not generate the gasps that some productions have done.

We had a very clear view of the chandelier on its ascent, and I have to admit I never before noticed the stage hands (probably actual stage hands!) remaining on stage to remove the draperies from the proscenium sculptures midway through. I am certain there has been a new orchestration of the Overture (by “new,” I mean within the last two years!) and it seemed very loud.

Obviously, looking back, I had seen Wendy Ferguson before as Carlotta; nevertheless, I felt like I was seeing a new portrayal, albeit one as far removed from Julie Schmidt as I could possibly recall. She nearly kissed the head during the first few notes (someone I had always believed the monolithic anthropomorphic statues came out of trap doors, but with careful observation this time I realized they were draped on the floor in a certain way and then raised. Very clever!). Watching the rehearsal this time, I wondered whether the characters swap round who is in a state of non-complete dress. What I mean is that there is always one Princess who is almost completely in her 1880s dress, as the Wardrobe Mistress hasn’t finished her outfit on time. Also there is at least one man in “modern” dress and another of the Princesses has part of her costume done. In any case, this time it looked like things were slightly different. I’m sure it doesn’t signify in any way, but I just thought it was interesting.

Yes, the “blackface” performers are there to stay; whether they were there in 2005, I have no idea. They even dance differently to the rest of the Hannibal cast during Piangi’s last note. The Slave Driver has definitely got the buffed up torso with shiny substance, for better or worse. I hadn’t seen Jeremy Secomb as Piangi before, and he really owned the part in Hannibal. I think now, upon seeing his cast photo, that the Phantom’s “Our Don Juan could lose some weight,” was not strictly true and achieved by costuming. In any case, his “Rome” was delivered very poncy, very Etonian. It was funny. I can’t remember which word, I think it was “your army has,” he held for an extremely long time, à la what Don Attilo used to do with “observe herrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.” Very good. The theme of the performance, as well, was all the characters screaming or yelling in unexpected places. For example, Piangi attempting to climb up the elephant let out a comic “Arrgh” as he tried to get onto the saddle. Once he finally arrived, he raised the sword with a winning grin which absolutely delighted the audience.

You know the part where Madame Giry insists Christine concentrate? My gosh, she was wandering all across the back of the stage, looking up. I have never seen a Christine be that blonde before! Alas, I find Madame Giry’s part is a bit thankless as the material doesn’t give much to lend one’s acting chops with (except for the lantern scene, which I’ll get to). Cheryl McAvoy was perfectly adequate in the role and very much heard in “Prima Donna.” Buquet looked like Ray Stevenson, and although he was certainly a younger Buquet, he wasn’t lecherous, which frankly was a bit of a relief.

Gareth Snook remains as André, and I still think there’s something a bit scary about his André. I realized that he looks like the Frank Langella Dracula, which perhaps accounts for some of it. Tim Laurenti was Lefèvre, not seeming terribly put out when he introduced La Carlotta was “our leading soprano, for five seasons.” Carlotta was terribly in love with André, quickly bypassing Firmin and offering her hand to the supercilious André. Firmin (Barry James) looked bemused. Neither was too introduced in Piangi, which of course caused hilarious consternation. I thought that Barry James looked completely new as a rather straight-man, befuddled Firmin, but apparently I saw him last time. In any case, I found him quite appealing against André’s oiliness. In the background, the Wardrobe Mistress and the “blackface” guy were chatting.

Wendy Ferguson is a big lady, and her voice is likewise big. The way she played Carlotta’s tantrum, on the other hand, was quite surprising. When Firmin did his preemptive clap, she looked daggers at him and really pouted. She was very restrained and, for lack of a better word, whiny when André offered a very cheeky, “These things do happen.” There was none of Minnie Driver’s OTT insult in “you have been here five minutes, what do you know?” It was certainly more human but definitely it offered a different beat to the scene. She dropped her scarf, which the Wardrobe Mistress obediently picked up (that must have happened every time I ever saw this show before, but I didn’t notice it before). Carlotta stalked off quite ahead of Piangi, who hesitated quite a bit before he got to stage left. All eyes were on him; a couple of times he seemed ready to go into a rant like Carlotta’s. Then he just sniffed, “Amateurs!” and dashed off.

Think of Me
Christine (Sofia Escobar) began “Think of Me” looking down, with a soft, fluty voice. As she progressed, her voice announced itself as being both very pop-ish but also quite rich and operatic when called for. A couple of times it sounded a bit shrill for me on the high notes, but overall, it was quite pleasant. As the show went on, I realized that it reminded me both of Emmy Rossum’s voice and her dubber for the French version of the film, Cécilia Cara, which is a good thing. I have no idea what the actress’ age is (she seems quite accomplished in her native Portugal, so she can’t be the ingénue that Christine is), but she seemed really young, and vivacious, two things that can be very important for a portrayal of Christine. She had a really expressive face, which we could see quite well from where we were sitting, and it counted for a lot. She had a very, very slight accent which, if you think about it, Christine might have had given she was actually Swedish!

Someone who didn’t have the accent I was expecting was Killian Donnelly. I personally prefer my Raouls vocally in the mold of Steve Barton or Patrick Wilson, with a pleasing, melodic tenor. Many, however, have a slightly bluffer tenor, with a sort of sharp edge of pronunciation to everything. This was demonstrated in this song, with Raoul sounding a bit mid-Atlantic, as if he had just flown over from New England to the Opéra Populaire. He was definitely an able singer, though a bit shout-y as the show continued. Nevertheless, he really looked like a Raoul. Not as drop-dead gorgeous as Oliver Thornton back in the day, but very handsome and dapper and even blonde!

The end cadenza was impressive if a bit shrill. This Christine was much better off not using vibrato. This audience seemed really enchanted with the effect achieved when Christine as Elissa takes her bows. It even continued to clap along with the soundtrack as Christine got handed her bouquet. It was cute.

Angel of Music
Wow, what a “brava, brava, bravissimi”! Remember, at this stage I didn’t know for sure the identity of the Phantom, but I was fairly convinced it wasn’t John Owen-Jones. The immediate thought that popped into my head was: Michael Crawford! Okay, the Original Cast Recording lacks a lot of feeling, but that’s a consequence of it being the definitive first album and studio-bound. I know that Crawford’s vocal capacity increased a great deal later on in his run, and I think this is the voice I was thinking of: such an angelic tone and way of phrasing—it’s difficult to describe—but also without some darker undertones. I love hearing different Phantoms, and while I do prefer tenors (which he certainly was), I appreciate being surprised by the baritones, too.

Anna Forbes was one of the better Megs I’ve heard, vocally in any case. While she shouted a really grating “HE’S HERE, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA!” earlier, she was quite pleasant to listen to in this song. To be honest, they were very charming in this scene. Christine was very expressive and lovely, exuding warmth and kindness. While Meg seemed penitent when Madame Giry came in to get her, there was not really a pause for a laugh during, “Meg Giry, are you a dancer? Then go and practice.” Giry’s “my dear,” seemed very unexpected considering how grim she was overall.

Little Lotte/The Mirror
Madame Firmin had a line! I think it was two words, but she definitely said it. No one was lecherous when Raoul ran off to Christine’s dressing room; “they appear to have met before” was matter-of-fact. This scene was really played well. I loved the tone. It was affectionate and friendly, just as suited the relationship between Raoul and Christine through most of the book. They appeared like two old friends re-meeting for the first time. The only time Raoul betrayed anything like ulterior motives was the long pause after “two minutes . . . . . . Little Lotte.” He was down on bended knee during “Father is dead, Raoul” and was still gallant. The singing was melodic until “dark stories of the north!” which was half-whispered harshly. She seemed resigned and almost fatalistic rather than pleading at “Things have changed!”

The Phantom still seemed to be channeling Michael Crawford’s voice here, which was an interesting sensation. Christine actually searched around her dressing room once the Phantom started singing, presumably to find the source of the voice (which is very in keeping with the childlike Christine of the book—remember, when the chandelier fell she thought maybe the Voice had been hurt!). I liked that a lot. She had to look dreamlike when she sang first to the Mirror, then exhorted toward us. The glass seemed to open very quickly. Raoul was very shout-y, sacrificing melody for power. The Phantom had been angry on “Insolent boy” but not as harsh as David Shannon was last time.

Phantom of the Opera
Oh, that weird instrument was back for the title song. Very quick dashing into the trap door. The second set of doubles, the ones going across the gantry—I’m not sure it was a safety issue or what, but the Phantom held up his hand to stop Christine, then when the gantry moved more horizontally, he began to lead her, but she was the one dragging her feet. Indeed, throughout the title song, as before, he had to really sort of drag her down. She was in a bemused state, not struggling, but it seemed she was not going of her own volition!

Beautiful as always, of course—candelabra rising from the depths. However, my first clue that maybe the Phantom was an understudy or swing was that the boat seemed stuck. I’m not sure how I got this impression, but he seemed to be really punting along with the pole and it wasn’t going anywhere. Not that anyone stopped singing or even looked like something was going wrong (but then, they’re professionals, aren’t they?). I got this impression later on as they made it to the front of the stage and right before the boat turned into a bed. It could have been my imagination, but he just seemed to be using the punt with extreme force and it didn’t seem to be registering that force.

Nevertheless, I have not enjoyed the title song this much since perhaps the first time I saw it. I’m not sure what it was; it can’t just have been the presence of the handsome man beside me holding my hand in the dark, but I was literally grinning ear-to-ear during this song. It was an excitement that I never quite reached again, even during Final Lair. Firstly, there was a nice hat toss from Simon Shorten, followed by the kind of consummate cloak twirl that I have not seen since the film. That was the cloak twirl to be beaten, and this one was just wonderful. Now this I have not seen before: the Phantom held his hand about shoulder-height up to Christine, palm down, as if he was telling her to even out her singing. This, during the cadenza, was the meaning I got from it. He then gripped the air as if encouraging her voice to grow and ascend. It was a great touch as it made the cadenza more about singing than about sex (either approach is valid). Similarly, his “Sing for me!”s were emphatic, gripping, heated and quite booming and loud, but they weren’t slavering or panting. He did the Dave Willetts hair-smoothing gesture, hand remaining sort of on his sternum for awhile. He raced to the organ, definitely involved in the music, a bit ravenous, a bit frustrated, but mostly, it seemed to be, focusing on the music. On the second “My music . . . my music,” he sat down at the organ.

Music of the Night
There seemed to be two flubs in this song, once again reinforcing my perception that the actor wasn’t an alternate. The first had to do with an extra “the” or something in there, the second was repeating a phrase (though I can’t seem to remember which one). In any case, no one cares, really. I couldn’t see Christine, though to be honest I didn’t much care; the Phantom is the one to watch in this scene (though with my luck, Sofia Escobar was doing something really amazing and I missed it). The Phantom had his right hand sort of on his hip, as if he had a bit of a nervous stomach! That was quite interesting.

The singing of the song reminded me, yes, of Michael Crawford, but also, most definitely, of Ted Keegan, my first Phantom. I very much enjoyed it, though I have to admit the “soar” was a bit of a disappointment, it wasn’t quite as ethereal or as strongly-held as is my preference. Simon Shorten seems to have gone to William Hartnell school of hand-acting, as he kept his hands in theatrical yet very engaging motion around his shoulders and face, as Hartnell did to keep camera on him. On the portcullis, he looked very self-consciously sexy before Christine came to join him, looking a bit out of breath and bemused. When she tried to touch the mask, he turned slightly in her direction, which was quite underwhelming, but seemed to scare her off immediately!

On “touch me,” he kind of moved her hand vaguely in the direction of his face, but it wasn’t a caress. He sort of leaned into her and held her for “trust me.” He seemed a bit impatient when she actually did the pose (mask-caress) and pulled away, not at all eager for her to do, er, what he said (ie, “touch me,” though perhaps in context this Phantom meant “touch me” in the emotional sense). Poor, poor Mirror Bride. I wonder if she was new? The way she flopped over was really awkward. I thought, “oh gosh, she has to hold this position at least until the lights-out.” I was so distracted by the Mirror Bride I was a bit surprised at how quickly Christine fainted and went foom! into the Phantom’s arms. He nestled her on her side. The last note . . . well, he seemed either a bit breathless or else nervous—he couldn’t really sustain the note, added a lot of vibrato, held it as long as possible, and then let the orchestra hold it. Consummate professional, though, he never faltered[1].

Stranger Than You Dreamt It
I’m sure it was my overactive imagination, but when the Phantom was there at the organ, he was playing quite furiously and I wondered whether he was mad at himself for messing up the ending to the previous song! Throughout this, he sort of rocked his head back and forth, as if trying to work it out in his head, shaking his head when he decided he had gotten it wrong, and so on. It was a nice approach.

Christine woke up gradually, looked a bit confused, and sang dreamily, without a great sense of dread. There was a tiny bit of a wardrobe malfunction as, when she removed the cloak, the dressing gown had come away slightly and she had to very deftly and quickly cover up her leg.

She got a very forceful grip around the mask and ripped it off. He uttered a loud, anguished “aaarggh!” before a strong, fast, “Damn you!” I got the strange sense that his hand wasn’t quite big enough to cover up the deformity, or there was something somewhat jerky in the blocking. Perhaps my imagination. Unfortunately I missed a lot toward the end of the scene as the people in front of me were blocking me and to get any of the Phantom’s inching across the floor I had to lean quite far to the side. There was a little bit of emphasis on “carcass.” The words of the last phrase just tumbled out, “yearns for heaven, secretly, secretly . . .” The “oh Christine” was a bit perfunctory. I could barely see him, but he had crawled along the floor, reached up and then sunk down again. His shoulders were shaking and he was rocking a bit—nothing too dramatic but fairly illustrative nonetheless.

She handed the mask back, and he flinched. When he reached toward her for “Come, we must return,” she pulled away, as if she expected to be hit. So he grabbed her wrist. “Those two fools who run my theatre will be missing you” was said with resignation and matter-of-factly.

Magical Lasso/Prima Donna/Notes
Buquet, as I said, despite the fact he was a younger actor, had a shaved head and looked like he was an East End gangster. He seemed to enjoy frightening the ballet rats much more than trying to get in their good graces. I thought he might have tried to beat up Madame Giry when she gave the fatal warning.

Everyone picked up on the “written”—“And what is it that we’re meant to have wrote?” Then Firmin and André made a great show of going through tenses silently in their heads before deciding on “written!” Carlotta tossed her fox stole almost right into Raoul’s face, which he took angrily but with enforced calm! I was watching the back of the stage, as were the characters, and so when the door opened and no one came through, I almost missed Madame Giry and Meg coming in from the wings! Carlotta’s face changed from fury to uncertainty when Firmin said “the silent role!”

It was difficult to hear Raoul. Firmin looked so put out when he said, “We need you too.” Carlotta looked so pleased when they asserted, “The world wants you.” She was also fiddling with her gloves during this part of the song; I don’t know if it was meant to betray diva-ish behavior or nerves, or what, but it was interesting. When Raoul was questioning Meg, she was shaking her head back and forth. I have to say, this is probably the best “Prima Donna” I’ve ever seen—there was so much energy and the pacing was good.

Il Muto
Very saucy Christine as the Pageboy. When the Countess got off the bed, her long sleeve got in Christine’s face, intentionally of course, and Christine extricated herself to be in shot in a very amusing fashion. The two looked at each other with mutual loathing whenever they could get away with it. I’m not sure what angle Wendy Ferguson was playing, but for “Poor fool,” she deliberately sounded as awful as possible, way overblown and a bit bored! I had forgotten you could see the Phantom almost at eye-level from where we were sitting. “Your part is silent, little toad,” was said quietly and with a minimum of venom. There was no “Maestro, per favore,” Carlotta just plunged right in and was horribly toadlike, and gave up quite quickly. André didn’t grab Christine, just said she would be playing the role of the Countess. He thumbed through his program manically for “from Act Three. The ballet . . . from Act Three. The ballet.” He was repeating this all the way into the scene change. He bumped into the bosoms of two of the dancers! The Phantom’s laughter was boisterous, but kind of like a normal person’s laugh! Perhaps it was the angle, but the Phantom’s shadows behind the backdrop didn’t look quite as threatening as usual. Firmin looked genuinely sad when he insisted, “it was an accident, ladies and gentlemen, it was simply an accident!”

The Rooftop/All I Ask of You
Raoul’s singing was shouty. “Yet his voice . . .” was absolutely beautiful, “soar” was one of the best I’ve ever heard. Christine held Raoul at arm’s length, as if to shake and convince him, then for “Yet in his eyes . . .” she threw herself on his shoulder and held him closely. Raoul bounded across the roof after she said, “What was that?” Then he shouted “Christine!” As ever, “All I Ask of You” was pleasant. Escobar’s voice was great, generally not too operatic, and Donnelly was no Patrick Wilson, but he was fine. They took a long time to actually kiss, then flung their faces at each other. They were still nearly kissing by the time she sang, “I must go!” I definitely felt a mood change when Raoul said, “Christine, I love you!” Christine changed her mind in that moment. I think that was the moment she decided to leave the Phantom; I got the sense that it wasn’t premeditated. I never had that kind of sense before.

All I Ask of You Reprise
As the Angel lowered, I guess a lot of people were pretty shocked and had not guessed that the Phantom would have overheard this exchange (unlike me, they have not had the benefit of years and years of experience!!). There were some gasps. We seemed to be almost level with the Angel, so there wasn’t much in the way of climbing out. Again, the Michael Crawford-esque voice. As he listened to them sing, he was shaking his head, muttering softly, sort of pressing the side of his head against the Angel as if overcome, then finally covering his ears with a cry of rage just before “You will curse . . .!” Now, maybe it was where we sitting, but he seemed to edge out the top of the Angel on his knees and it looked quite dangerous. I can’t remember seeing a Phantom climb up the top of the Angel on his knees, so I was sort of concerned and preoccupied. I also noticed that the stagehands were there at the front of the stage to “catch” the chandelier.

Did there just used to be a spotlight on Firmin and André with the curtains closed behind them? The two bumped into each other and screamed “arrrrgh!”, in keeping with the theme of the evening, which was very funny. You could almost tell André was dying to throw off his cloak and show off the skeleton outfit, which got a big laugh as usual. “Masquerade” quite normal and flowed well; Carlotta nearly erupting out of her costume. What was Piangi meant to be? I saw someone dressed up as a hula dancer, a costume that must have existed forever but I never saw it before! At one point before Christine and Raoul’s song, I was watching the dancers on the stairs, and they were chatting to each other (not the mannequins, though). I wondered if they were really chatting and what about.

Raoul was annoyed and not quite as forceful with “It’s an engagement, not a crime!” We had quite a clear view of the staircase. Codpiece is gone for good, it seems (in Don Juan Triumphant as well). It was really annoying how all the characters swarmed around Christine whispering her name as the Phantom approached her. What is the point of that?

Notes II/Sitzprobe
Has the staircase prop ever made that much noise before in the history of the world? I can’t remember it doing that before and it kind of ruined the magic! My goodness, Raoul was shouting through the Giry/Raoul scene. It seemed a bit unclear when Raoul asked, “deformed?” “From birth, it seems.”

I noticed the musician vamping for “get a player with tone / and that first trombone.” A very loud “Ahhh” and an acidic but not too scornful “Here’s our little flower.” Not a terribly hard-edged “She’s the one behind this, Christine Daaé!” but point well-taken; Christine got her own back standing her ground with “How dare you?” I think the emotion was on the way to overwhelming her as I couldn’t make out anything but “MAD!!” Carlotta looked sad and not that upset when the managers brought the chair for Christine to sit in. Appalled but not that concerned in “She’s mad!”

Okay, the guy sitting next to Carlotta in the Sitzprobe seems to have made his part standard. It’s very funny, the way he laughs at Piangi and then has Carlotta to reckon with. Carlotta shrugged off “The composer is not here, and if he were . . .”

Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again/Wandering Child
The violinist was great—what at tempo. Christine looked really mournful and upset during this song. Her voice was perfect, and that “goodbye” was very good. She seemed to argue with herself for “Dreaming of you won’t help me to do all that you dreamed I could!” During the instrumental, she just broke down in sobs. It was really heartfelt. I was impressed.

I really love the London staging of the trio. I must be losing my mind, but I expected the Phantom to come out the back of the cross, not the front of it, so I was quite surprised when he slunk out, almost at our eye-level. “Wandering child” was hypnotic and light; the song had a real dynamism to it. Raoul kept rushing to and fro, fists balled up, obviously wanting to be the man of action and unable to do anything. Vocally, Donnelly reminded me of Gardar Thor Cortez. The Phantom persisted with his “I am your Angel, come to me Angel of Music”s for quite awhile.

All of the Phantom’s retorts from this point on seemed a bit fast and perfunctory. The flame-balls seemed quite wimpy, though the flames from the stage were still impressive.

Don Juan/Point of No Return
Sofia Escobar looked very cute as Aminta. I could swear there was some kind of flub during this song, I could swear he sang “path forward” somewhere during the introduction. It wasn’t really noticeable, however (unlike the famous “the duck’s warring in”). She had the apple in hand, threw her head back, rubbed it across her sternum, and that was about it until he handed her the goblet. She drank, wiped her mouth, he caught her hand. He would gently place his hand against her face, almost touching her, but not quite, then give up as if he couldn’t actually physically do it. He took her hands and rubbed them, encased in his own, along the four corners of her dress, then shrank from her touch and sat on the bench. As she moved away, he had turned quite far to the side, almost in profile, sitting at the very end of the bench. Quite far to stage left.

What can I say? She’s a very good vocalist, and the song was easy-peasy for her. He continued on the bench as she sang, hands sort of in the same stomach area, twitching as if very uncomfortable. At one point, he leaned back over the bench, cowl drooping, as if he was about to collapse on top of that. That was at least as eloquent as other Phantoms’ obsessive clawing of their thighs! She came back to the bench and performed the usual movements with the hands encased, then a very clear twig when she touched the mask. She was straining to get off the stage until the song ended and she took off the cowl.

The Phantom looked like he was going to try to escape, until he turned around and saw Raoul and the policemen. He muttered in surprise (though surely he knew they were going to be there after the earlier stunt he pulled in Box Five?), then kind of gave up and was staggering around the stage until he began singing “Say you’ll share with me . . .” He gently removed the ring and forced it on Christine’s finger.

He gave another “Aaargh!” when she removed the mask and wig. Things snowballed rapidly. During the scene change when Piangi’s body is taken away, I’m not sure what happened, but I couldn’t hear Carlotta at all. Either her mike wasn’t working or she totally changed the dramatic center of the character; Carlotta wasn’t screaming, crying, or freaking out; she stood meekly by as Firmin screamed, “We’re ruined, André, ruined!”

Down Once More/Final Lair
I admit, I was having my doubts at this point; during the boat ride, I thought it might have been John Owen-Jones after all, due to the power of the “Down once more . . .” There was a great deal of agitation during “Christine, Christine, why, why?!” Christine was face-up in the boat, trembling, but she didn’t seem to struggle as much as last time and he merely loomed over her threateningly.

When Raoul took off his jacket and waistcoat to jump into the lake, he left them up on the gantry. I don’t know why this attracted my attention, but later as the mob came down, one of them had to pick up Raoul’s clothes so they didn’t trip over them. Why did he bother in the first place, I wonder?!

She ran on stage for “Have you gorged . . .” He had the veil for “This face, the infection which poisons our love,” which was said in a very tearful, disappointed voice, with the emphasis on “infection.” He stood apart from her during “This face which earned . . .” More of a barking inflection for “Pity comes too late!” He put the veil on during “Turn around and face your fate.” He straightened the veil’s folds for “an eternity of this.” He turned around to take the bouquet very quickly, tried to hand it to her. She wouldn’t take it, so he forced it into her hands. She looked so weary with him for “This haunted face.”

She dashed across the stage when Raoul arrived. Very snarky, very sardonic, “Wait, I think, my dear.” He was actually laughing like it was all a joke on him, and he was taking it with the resignation and disappointment that had carried him through life. “Sir, this is indeed,” he gave a very exaggerated bow to Raoul. He threw that dummy, my goodness! That was the scariest and most violent moment of any Final Lair I think I’ve ever seen. Not an Elizabeth Southard, “Please, Raoul, it’s useless,” but more heartfelt than some. I always forget that the shoulder-shrug at “Be my guest, sir” is really to cause the portcullis to raise; it always looks so bad@$$.

I think just after Raoul’s “Why make her lie to you to save me?” the Phantom ran up to get to Raoul. Christine had immediately thrown herself between them as a human shield and the Phantom had already looked like he was ready to throw some punches. I don’t know if it was rehearsed or not, because it had a very spontaneous quality, but in reaction, Christine went “Arrrgh!” and the Phantom pulled back. He returned to sit by the organ. In a mirror image of “Stranger Than You Dream It,” he was crumpling up the pages of the score, obviously feeling quite remorseful and perhaps wishing he could stop the chain of events that led him to this point, but apparently unable to do so. He was sort of bowing his head against the music stand, like an animal twitching its head from side to side in pain. “His life is now the prize which you must earn,” he sang, going to the throne and carefully folding his cloak on the arm as he sat down.

“I gave my mind blindly!” she shouted as she fell to het feet next to him at the throne. “You try my patience!” he said calmly and dully, nearly waggling his finger at her. “Make your choice” he said, with finality, no rage, but dangerously cool. She rose to her feet. When she threw her arms around him to kiss him, he had his hands rigidly at his sides, above her back. She tried to touch the deformed part of him, but he struggled when she did this, almost as if her touch on his deformity burned. When she let go of him, he staggered backwards and once again touched the deformity, as if remembering or else unbelieving that she had touched it. He took the candle and moved as if he was going to throw it at someone, Christine once again throwing herself between Raoul and him. As they went off, he picked up her veil. UNFORTUNATELY the girl in front of me was in the way so I couldn’t see if he kissed the veil or not. When the music box began, he sat in front of it ruefully. Eventually he realized that she was behind him, so he straightened up, adjusting his waistcoat, which was heartbreaking—obviously assuming she had returned to him. “Christine, I love you . . .” She held out the ring; he was disbelieving, and she finally had to take a few steps forward and force it into his hand. After she had fled, he kissed the ring and put it back on. He was weeping on the floor for a bit, just sobbing quietly, and sang the ending phrase well.

[1] I’ve just read on Simon Shorten’s Twitter page (oh boy, it’s strange to be following Phantoms on Twitter) that he had a bad throat the day of the performance, so that is probably the cause. Good for him to go on despite that!