Musical theatre review: Behind the mask of success and excess

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The Phantom of the Opera

Theatre Royal, Plymouth

This show was booked solid months ago for the entire run, which includes two matinees every week. Ken Hill's version, with genuine operatic arias, was seen in Torquay, but the legendary Andrew Lloyd Webber version has never found its way to the west before.

Shows with the astounding record of Phantom, which has made the originators millionaires, reach a stage when they are beyond criticism. Its acceptance by the public is a theatrical phenomena, only matched, in our time, by The Sound of Music and Les Miserables. But they have a solid story with development and believable characters, whereas Phantom disguises its wispy story with special effects.

Lloyd Webber and his collaborator Richard Stilgoe don't hang about. In the first three minutes there is a dress rehearsal for an obscure opera called Hannibal, with prima donna tantrums, a group of cannibals, a singing corps de ballet, a dangerously swinging chandelier, and a life-size model elephant. From then on regular scenery shifts become an item of interest. A Paris Opera House of 1911, complete with gilded nude statuary around the proscenium arch; an underground lake, lit with candles; an amazing half circle staircase, big enough to hold 30 people singing in unison.

You cannot help being dazzled by the conspicuous expenditure. If somebody has seen a return on an investment of this scale then they must be doing something right. It seems nothing succeeds like excess.

The story has enough romance and passion for grand-scale opera, but the style of the book and lyrics and music is nearer to old-style musical comedy of the Nelson Eddy and Jeanette McDonald era. The story comes over in fits and starts and reprises, which occur every 10 minutes, sometimes with the same melody but a different lyric. is a mountain of kitsch with a cherry on top.

Gaston Leroux's pot boiler has become a useful vehicle, (four films already) and there are others waiting in the wings. (What about Maurice Dekobra's Madonna of the Sleeping Cars? It must be out of copyright by now.) In the current touring version Scott Davies does have a haunting voice and perfect singing diction. Zoe Curlett is not quite so clear and has a beautiful tone. The conception and the original direction was in the hands of Harold Prince, who has welded singing, dancing, music and staggering stage craft into a solid achievement. The stage manager, Greg Shimmin, has four assistants and I'm sure he needs them all.

To 13 June. Bookings: 01752 267222

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