Gilbert & Sullivan Society of SA
The Arts Theatre
Until 06 Oct 2018

Review by Anthony Vawser

Well, it’s time once more for that iconic Phantom to rise from the depths and recommence his haunting/serenading of Adelaide’s Arts Theatre to the unforgettable strains of what is surely Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most famous and popular musical score – but why don’t we just deal right away with the elephant in the room? It cannot be avoided or denied that this would appear to be an old-fashioned story built on a number of traditional foundations that are not currently fashionable in certain cultural circles – but this does not automatically make for a show that should be considered unworthy of (or unsuitable for) staging in 2018.

It may be a valid reaction these days to feel a certain moral unease during such famous sequences/numbers as “Music of the Night”, wherein a murderous stalker/kidnapper seemingly attempts to make a case for himself as a misunderstood romantic who is worthy of love, and when we are made to watch a young woman literally mesmerised and seemingly helpless in the face of the Phantom’s spell – but this reviewer, for one, does not subscribe to the idea that art needs to be totally easy, or totally safe, in order to be acceptable.

The Phantom has never been (or pretended to be) anything resembling a conventional hero/protagonist, and the emotional dynamic between him and Christine has surely always been more creditably ambiguous than straightforwardly black-and-white. The man may be both damaged and dangerous, but anyone who would claim that he wields all the power over the woman all the time is probably not paying enough attention.

In any event, what surely matters most of all in every piece of musical theatre is the music, and this particular orchestra (under MD Jillian Gulliver) gives us a pretty-close-to-flawless rendition, while the sound designers/technicians deliver soaring, sweeping sonics. Ensemble vocals are of an equally and consistently high standard, with “Masquerade” a particularly ‘masq-nificent’ standout (also with regard to the costumes that have been superbly co-ordinated by Helen Snoswell). Set design (by the director) does a more-than-adequate job at setting each scene (as long as you don’t pin your hopes on a gondola).

The choreography of Jamie Jewell does well to utilise a stage area that is not particularly spacious, while deploying a relatively large cast. Lighting design is frequently textured and atmospheric in ways that work very well indeed - though it is unclear to this reviewer whether the use of projection on opening night to depict a gravestone was working correctly as intended.

Crucial props like a musical monkey and a self-playing piano work seemingly like magic – as does a very clever piece of furniture right at the very end – though the moment featuring the famous chandelier honestly feels more lacklustre than breathtaking. Occasional fumbles (and stranded cast/crew) during scene changes and curtain drops are noticeable but do not make a negative impact of any real consequence.

It has been a pleasure to follow the progress of Serena Martino-Williams from a highly promising and accomplished young performer in the variety shows of Promise Adelaide to an adult leading lady of virtually professional standard. Her interpretation of Christine is both visually and aurally mesmerising, managing to capture the ideal balance of nervous inexperience and inner steel. In the title role, Adam Goodburn’s physicality and vocal quality manage in most scenes to give Michael Crawford a run for his money – though the make-up designed to display his deformity ultimately proves to be a little underwhelming in impact.

Speaking of underwhelming: is it just this reviewer’s problem, or can it be generally agreed that Raoul is an eternally blank slate of a character, more a symbol of sanity and solidity than a dimensional person? At least Jared Frost brings a noticeably trained voice as well as pleasant features to the role. (On opening night, he also coped admirably with what appeared to be an unfortunate mechanical mishap not of his making.) Jessica Muenchow brings an earthiness and warmth that is both atypical to the character of Meg Giry and consistently appealing.

Monique Hapgood gives Carlotta all the comical characteristics we would want and expect without ever taking it too far, and James Nicholson’s Ubaldo Piangi also adds to the welcome quotient of humour in this production, though Kaylene Graham’s Madame Giry has roughly as many scenes that spark nicely as ones that fall a bit flat. Lance Jones is memorable playing Joseph Buquet, while David Visentin and Rod Schultz are a sterling comedy double-act in the roles of Andre and Firmin. (Nicholas Munday and Brad Martin solidly round out the named principal cast.)

David Sinclair (assisted by Brock Roberts) has directed the action to flow smoothly and swiftly (at least once we get past the slightly laborious opening auction), making for an experience with very little in the way of excess heaviness or dead weight. On the other hand, one of the issues with “Phantom” – for this reviewer, at least – has always been the lack of intellectual heft to the story, as well as the relatively sparse characterisation provided by the libretto, and this production’s sharp pace actually tends to accentuate these flaws, even as it makes for a very good piece of entertainment.

In the end, with such a solid collection of strengths combining to bring this “Phantom” to life, it ought to be easy for even doubters and naysayers to respect the achievement on display here. This reviewer has been left largely satisfied, and will happily recommend this production to ‘Phans’ and newbies alike. At the very least, a show like this one, born from a different era as it may be, has the potential to raise questions that are important, necessary, and useful for any arts community to ask of itself as it looks toward the future.