The Phantom of the Opera musical review (Singapore 2019)

For Popcorn 

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA

24 April – 8 June
Sands Theatre at Marina Bay Sands, Singapore

The Phantom of the Opera is a juggernaut: a show beloved by legions of devoted ‘Phans’ and one that has been seen by over 140 million people around the world, grossing over $6 billion. In its 30-plus years of existence, it has become a phenomenon, with this marking the fourth time the Phantom’s gondola has travelled to our shores.

Based on Gaston Leroux’s gothic horror novel, The Phantom of the Opera is set in the Paris Opera House towards the end of the 19th Century. A mysterious deformed musical genius known only as “the Phantom” has become something of an urban legend among the company of the Opera House. The Phantom has taken young ballet/chorus girl Christine Daaé under his wing, becoming obsessed with nurturing her talent and consequently, with her. The opera’s wealthy patron Raoul, the Vicomte de Chagny, enters the fray. He is a childhood friend of Christine’s, and when they rekindle their relationship, the Phantom becomes jealous and maniacal, stopping at nothing to win Christine for himself.

Just as The Phantom of the Opera has its die-hard supporters, the show also has its detractors. There are some who think it is gaudy and overblown, and that its emphasis on blockbuster spectacle over artistry does a disservice to theatre. While there is some validity to this point of view, it’s hard not to be seduced by the Phantom. A night out at the theatre does not come cheap, and there are few musicals which justify ticket prices more than Phantom does. There’s the Phantom’s candlelit lair, there’s the roof of the Opera House with its angel statue, there’s the grand staircase during “Masquerade” and of course that chandelier. It’s a complete experience, one which wraps the audience up and doesn’t let them go.

The music is enthralling, with many songs being immediately memorable. This is Andrew Lloyd Webber at his most Andrew Lloyd Webber, delivering not just lush melodies but also referencing existing operas for the shows-within-a-show mounted by the company of the Paris Opera House.

Songs like the title track and “Music of the Night” are so well known, that it’s easy to forget just how good the lyrics by Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe are. “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again” has a mournful wistfulness that explodes into heartache, while “Point of No Return” is fatalistic, passionate and ominous. “Masquerade” bursts with joy, but a spectre hangs over the celebration. Every song has its place, and this is a show with an absurdly high “humming as you leave the theatre” quotient.

One of the things that makes Phantom work as a musical is that the story is set in an opera house. While the show is billed as a romance, a big part of it is the backstage farce – it’s a show about show-business. The new managers of the Opera House are woefully ill-equipped to deal with the artists they oversee, let alone the Phantom lurking beneath. There’s a clash between the “show” and “business” sides, which provides Phantom some much-needed levity.

Jonathan Roxmouth’s Phantom is a charismatic presence, with the actor truly coming into his own during “Final Lair”, the emotional climax of the show. This is a maximally daunting role, and while Roxmouth might not be the strongest Phantom out there when it comes to the vocals, he brings the essential mystique to the character, engendering both sympathy and revulsion. This is a character who does outright villainous things, but whom the audience gravitates towards because of his tragic back-story and because of his mystery. The Phantom has no baseline for healthy human interactions, so his idea of wooing a girl is to build a mannequin of her wearing a wedding dress. There’s a sadness to the character but we understand why he’s that way. Phantom is not a subtle show and the Phantom himself is not a subtle character, so the nuance that Roxmouth brings to the part goes a long way.

Viewed through a modern lens, there certainly are problematic elements to the story, most of which lie with its treatment of Christine. However, as played by Meghan Picerno, Christine is a fighter. She goes from giving up her voice and her power to taking it back and not letting the men around her define her, as they try to do for the entire show. Picerno has an excellent look of panic whenever Christine realises that the Phantom is nearby, and during the moments when Christine is happy, she really sells that.

Picerno plays the ending of “Think of Me” perfectly – as Christine begins the cadenza, she seems unsure of herself, then as she continues, she finds her groove, and ends triumphantly, having made a stunning debut. Those who prefer seeing Christine as more of a naïve ingenue might not love Picerno’s take, but Christine as a fighter is an interpretation which works.

Raoul typically gets short shrift. We’ve all heard it before: he’s boring, he’s the safe alternative, he’s a rich kid who didn’t do very much to earn what he has. Matt Leisy seems aware of all this and creates a Raoul who, while charming, also has what it takes to go toe to toe with the Phantom. Raoul is the most under-written role of the three principals, but Leisy does remarkable work with the material, making the character more of a challenge to the Phantom’s grip on Christine.

Beverly Chiat is hilarious and boasts a powerful soprano as the conceited diva Carlotta Guidicelle, while Melina Kalomas is a textbook Madame Giry, secretive and severe. As the hapless managers Andre and Firmin respectively, Curt Olds and James Borthwick are an entertaining double act, just the right pitch of goofy.

There are few pieces of entertainment that I love more than The Phantom of the Opera, which means I’m predisposed to enjoy it, but which also means I have expectations every time I see the show. This production mostly meets those expectations, and watching it was a warm reminder of why I became a Phan in the first place.

Jedd Jong

Photo credits: The Phantom of the Opera World Tour

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The night beckons: Phantom of the Opera musical Singapore press call

For Popcorn

THE NIGHT BECKONS: PHANTOM OF THE OPERA MUSICAL PRESS CALL

We peek behind the mask with the cast of the blockbuster musical
By Jedd Jong

The Phantom of the Opera is a familiar show and one that’s come to represent musical theatre, but a show that retains its mystique and appeal 30 years on. The musical debuted on the West End in 1986 and on Broadway in 1988, running uninterrupted in both regions since then. There have also been multiple touring productions, a 2004 feature film adaptation and a 25th anniversary performance. It is estimated that a staggering 140 million people have seen The Phantom of the Opera, and the musical has grossed over $6 billion.

It seems that Singapore can’t get enough of the Phantom – this is the show’s fourth visit to our shores, following productions in 1995, 2007 and 2013. The Phantom of the Opera features music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe. Many of its songs, including the title track, “Music of the Night”, “All I Ask of You” and “Masquerade”, have become popular culture staples. In addition to its memorable music, the show has become known for its spectacular sets, costumes and special effects, with a chandelier crash being its signature moment.

Based on the French novel by Gaston Leroux, The Phantom of the Opera is a sweeping romance set in the Paris Opera House. The titular character is a disfigured genius who lives in the catacombs beneath the opera house, and develops a fixation of Christine Daaé, a young ingenue in whom he sees tremendous potential. Raoul, the wealthy Vicomte de Chagny, is a childhood friend of Christine’s who re-enters her life, falling in love with her. The Phantom is determined to win Christine’s love at all costs, wreaking havoc on the Opera House and its occupants. Christine finds herself caught in a struggle of power and passion as dramatic as the operas she performs in.

This production opened on April 24 at Marina Bay Sands Singapore, where it is playing until June 8. The company arrived from Manila and this production retains the original costume and set design by the late Maria Björnson, with some elements redesigned to facilitate the touring. From the afore-mentioned chandelier to the grand staircase in the foyer of the Opera House, from the Phantom’s watery lair with its gondola and portcullis to the roof of the Opera house under a starlit sky, The Phantom of the Opera is as much a feast for the eyes as it is for the ears.

The title character is played by Jonathan Roxmouth, who last visited Singapore playing Che in Evita. Roxmouth has a smouldering leading man quality to him and is a fan of the show himself, sporting a pin in the shape of the Phantom’s mask on his lapel. He has a history with the show, having first played Raoul, then playing the Phantom. Looking back, he said “I was 24 and suddenly given the keys to the Rolls Royce that I was meant to rent twice a week. I was terrified; I didn’t have enough confidence in myself, I doubted myself every time. I got there, but it was a very, very difficult process.”

Roxmouth said he now understands why the conventional wisdom is that one should be of a certain age to take on the role of the Phantom. “I’ve lived a lot in the last eight years. I’ve had experiences with sadness, love, of heartbreak, of loneliness, all the things that you need as an adult in your emotional toolbox as an actor to truly paint well for an audience.”

The role of the Phantom is a physically, vocally and emotionally demanding one which requires the actor to wear extensive prosthetic makeup and have half their face obscured by a mask. “If you think about kids around Halloween, when they put a mask on, they behave in a way that they normally wouldn’t, because it’s not them. Their inhibitions go out the window because there’s no consequence,” Roxmouth remarked. “That mask, it changes you, it really does,” Roxmouth added, comparing it to being possessed. “The minute you hear that organ, I feel my DNA change, it’s the strangest thing,” he commented.

The role is a personal one for Roxmouth because he identifies with the Phantom. Roxmouth related how growing up, he was bullied for being overweight, and turned to music as an escape. Because his family couldn’t afford a piano, Roxmouth would play the piano in the school hall. “Some of my friends nicknamed me ‘the Phantom’ in high school because if you didn’t know where I was, nine times out of ten I would be in the school hall with my back to the door playing the piano,” Roxmouth recalled, adding “I was him, in a way…all I had was music.”

Roxmouth said that having played Raoul before playing the Phantom gave him a better understanding of what Christine goes through as a character, since she is the object of both their affections. “If you want to win a war, know your enemy. I know my enemy,” he quipped.

Said enemy is ostensibly the hero of the show, but after all, it’s called “The Phantom of the Opera” and not “Raoul”. This is something Matt Leisy, who plays Raoul, is aware of. “I like to think that I make it a harder decision for Christine and the audience,” he says with a smile. In a way, the deck is stacked against him, because audiences are conditioned to gravitate towards the dangerous Phantom, rather than Raoul, who comes off the safe option. “He has to work really hard to get Christine, it’s just a constant struggle,” Leisy commented.

Raoul is the heir to a family fortune and as such can come off as entitled and flippant, but seeing Christine again so many years later changes him. Leisy described Raoul as being a “bit of a playboy in the beginning, but he’s essentially a romantic.” He also must be a swashbuckling action hero, leaping in to save the day during the show’s climactic confrontation in the Phantom’s Lair. “He has to play the hero because he knows what he wants, and he wants to save Christine,” Leisy said, referencing the character’s Naval background in the novel.

While many audiences might gravitate to the Phantom, Raoul’s point of view makes sense – after all, the Phantom is a murderer. “They have a complicated relationship, I think it’s the music and they have a deep connection, but she overlooks a lot of red flags!” Leisy remarked of the romance between Christine and the Phantom.

Meghan Picerno, who plays Christine, did not grow up with the show because she had a classical music background rather than a musical theatre one. However, after seeing the show, she immediately understood the appeal of the role. “It is nothing less than an incredible, challenging and rewarding journey,” Picerno said of Christine’s arc.

Christine is a character who goes from having others around her and external forces define her, to eventually wresting back control over her own destiny. “To have the great opportunity to indeed start at a place where she willingly gives her power to those around her, then finds herself in the midst of that, and owns it and takes the power by the end, is so empowering and so magical and satisfying,” dark  enthused.

Phantom is a show about darkness and light, with the Phantom representing the former and Raoul the latter. However, Picerno explains that there’s more to it than that. “Once you start to look deeper, indeed, they have such a mix,” she remarked. “Raoul is both light and dark, and so is the Phantom, and so is Christine. She wouldn’t be attracted to either of them if she didn’t have both [qualities] within her.”

Picerno compares the Phantom and Raoul using their respective signature songs, “Music of the Night” and “All I Ask of You”. “They’re satisfying different emotional aspects of her,” Picerno reasoned. “’Music of the Night’ is an awakening of her senses, her sexuality. ‘All I Ask of You’ is an awakening of her needs, her heart, her emotions, her wanting to be taken care of.”

One of Picerno’s favourite moments in the show is the ending, known as “Final Lair”. “There’s so much raw, true human emotion that’s in that scene and so much happens in that short amount of time,” Picerno said, adding “To see it and perform it, nothing can compare in my mind.”

With its potent mix of mesmerising music, a passionate love story, eye-catching stagecraft and a place in pop culture consciousness, it’s no wonder Phantom continues to entrance and seduce audiences more than 30 years after it first cast its spell.

Avengers: Endgame review

AVENGERS: ENDGAME

Directors: Anthony and Joe Russo
Cast : Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Paul Rudd, Brie Larson, Karen Gillan, Danai Gurira, Benedict Wong, Jon Favreau, Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow, Josh Brolin
Genre : Action/Superhero
Run Time : 3 hours 1 minute
Opens : 24 April 2019
Rating : PG13

The following review is spoiler-free.

Following the catastrophic events of Avengers: Infinity War, earth’s mightiest heroes have been crushed. Thanos (Josh Brolin) achieved his goal, wiping out half of all living creatures in existence. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle), Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) are all reeling from this loss.

Our heroes must regroup to fight to restore what was so cruelly taken from them. Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), who was thought to have been among the decimated, was lost in the Quantum Realm. He returns, meeting the surviving Avengers to tell them he might have an idea. What follows is an epic mission to mend what has been broken, one that will take its toll on the Avengers, but a mission which they must complete.

Avengers: Endgame marks the end of the Infinity Saga, a 22-movie cycle comprising the first three phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There is a lot on this movie’s shoulders, since it must address the events of Infinity War and function as a satisfying conclusion to the first 11 years of MCU movies. There will be MCU movies after this, of course: Spider-Man: Far From Home is being released in July. However, audiences know Avengers: Endgame must be far from just another MCU movie, and it is.

The ending of Avengers: Infinity War was an audacious mic-drop, a cliffhanger which audiences had to wait a year to see the resolution of. The villain won: it was like The Empire Strikes Back, but orders of magnitude more devastating for the heroes. The intervening year was filled with speculation and theories. Avengers: Endgame packs in the surprises and twists and turns from the very beginning of its three-hour runtime. It’s an extremely clever piece of writing from screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and a massive logistical ordeal overseen by directors Anthony and Joe Russo.

Without going into any details about the plot, it reminded me of how Eric Heisserer described writing The Thing (2011). That film was a prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 film of the same name, and writing it involved reverse-engineering specific aspects of that film to show audiences how things got to that point. Heisserer called it “doing it by autopsy”. The writing of Avengers: Endgame must have been a similar process.

This is a movie which is constructed to reward fans who have stuck with the franchise since the beginning. It is mostly fan-service, but “fan-service” has taken on such derisive connotations that it hardly seems fair to call it that. This is a movie which will break box office records and it’s absolutely not a standalone movie – audiences are expected to have a strong familiarity with not just Infinity War, but practically every single MCU movie preceding that, because many of the character arcs trace their way back to the beginning. It’s no coincidence that after Thanos’ snap, the original six team members who formed the group seen in The Avengers remain.

The characters of the MCU and their journeys have earned considerable cachet with audiences, and Endgame is intent on leveraging that for maximum effect. By turns heart-rending and triumphant, there are moments in this film which will feel like moments that fans have been waiting for ages to see onscreen, and other moments that are so sad, fans will hope they never had to witness. The film does tend towards the melodramatic, but perhaps this is justified given the operatic scale of the MCU.

The MCU’s original trinity of Iron Man, Captain America and Thor all figure heavily into the plot. Endgame sees Tony taking the loss of Infinity War especially hard, while Steve finds his usual optimism flagging in the aftermath of the snap. Some of the film’s best, most honest moments are quiet dialogue scenes, including when Steve participates in a support group meeting for people coping with the loss of their loved ones in the decimation. The gigantic battle sequences, while cheer-worthy, can feel a little bloated and synthetic as they are in many lesser comic book movies.

While there is a necessary bleakness to Endgame, there are still moments of levity which, unlike in many earlier MCU movies, do not infringe on the emotional heft. The MCU started out with Iron Man, a movie which depicted fanciful technology, but was a safe distance from all-out sci-fi or fantasy. Things have changed since then, characters from the cosmic and mythic corners of the MCU openly interacting with the earth-bound ones. “I get emails from a raccoon, so nothing sounds crazy to me anymore,” Natasha remarks.

Avengers: Endgame is about a clash between good and evil on a cosmic scale, promising blockbuster spectacle and expensive entertainment. While it delivers all that, its greatest asset is its soul. It’s a movie about endings and beginnings, the past and the future and about parents and children. It’s a movie about what we take with us and what we leave behind. There is tremendous catharsis to Endgame and it’s a testament to how Marvel studios constructed something objectively impressive with the MCU, but above all it’s a “thank you” to viewers who have joined the characters on the journey.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Hellboy (2019) review

HELLBOY

Director: Neil Marshall
Cast : David Harbour, Milla Jovovich, Ian McShane, Sasha Lane, Daniel Dae Kim, Thomas Haden Church, Penelope Mitchell, Brian Gleeson, Sophie Okonedo, Alastair Petrie
Genre : Action/Horror/Fantasy
Run Time : 2 hours
Opens : 11 April 2019
Rating : M18/PG13

           Last seen on the big screen in 2008’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army, the antihero with the shorn-off horns returns from the fiery depths in this regrettable reboot.

Hellboy/Anung Un Rama (David Harbour) is a demon who came to earth as the result of a Nazi experiment in World War II and was adopted and raised by Trevor Bruttenholm (Ian McShane). Bruttenholm founded the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Development (BPRD), a secretive agency that protects earth from supernatural threats. Hellboy, who was destined to bring about mankind’s destruction, fights to prevent it instead.

Vivienne Nimue (Milla Jovovich), the bloodthirsty sorceress defeated by King Arthur (Mark Stanley) and Merlin (Brian Gleeson), is resurrected with the help of the humanoid pig beast Gruagach (Stephen Graham). Nimue sets her sights on Hellboy, attempting to seduce him to join her side and turn against humanity. Hellboy is assisted in his quest by the clairvoyant Alice Monaghan (Sasha Lane) and BPRD agent Ben Daimio (Daniel Dae Kim), who suppresses his own horrific supernatural abilities.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army is one of this reviewer’s favourite comic book films. It is a pity that director Guillermo del Toro and star Ron Perlman were not given the opportunity to conclude that trilogy. Del Toro’s many gifts as a filmmaker include a meticulous visual sense, a knack for world-building and an emphasis on heart, all elements this reboot is sorely wanting for. There are enough superficial similarities with del Toro’s two Hellboy films to actively invite comparisons, none of which are favourable.

The Hellboy character was created by Mike Mignola, and this film purports to hew closer to the horror elements of the comics, taking inspiration from the arcs Darkness Calls, The Wild Hunt, and The Storm and the Fury. While this is certainly more violent and gorier than del Toro’s take on the material, that doesn’t make it any more interesting.

Director Neil Marshall seems like the natural candidate for the material, given his background in British horror films like The Descent, Dog Soldiers and Doomsday. While he seems to be aiming for a pulpy B-movie quality which comes through sporadically, there’s very little in Hellboy to really care about. Much of the story is told in reams of exposition, and flashbacks that establish each new character feel like distracting detours. There’s little mystique or creepiness to the occult elements of the story, such that suspension of disbelief isn’t earned.

In Singapore, the film is being released simultaneously in M18 and edited PG13 cuts. We saw the PG13 version, which is obviously and awkwardly hacked to pieces. If you’re watching this at all, do not watch the PG13 cut. It’s still gory and three uses of the F-word make it intact in the dialogue, which seems puzzling. We’re not sure how much better the M18 cut is, we’re willing to bet not much.

Guillermo del Toro’s deep love for movie monsters meant that there was something fascinating about each of the creatures seen in his movies, something in their design and the way they were brought to life by suit performers and special effects. This Hellboy movie gives us vampires, giants, fairies, zombies, pig-men, jaguar beasts and all assortment of monsters, but they rarely feel convincing and often come across as synthetic and goofy. There isn’t much scale to this movie even though it wants to be an epic, rollicking adventure, and what should be exciting is rendered frenetic instead. Baba Yaga (Troy James and Emma Tate) is a legitimately creepy monster, though, thanks mostly to the prosthetic makeup effects used to bring the crone to life.

David Harbour will be the target of much of the ire of fans who have grown attached to Ron Perlman’s take on Big Red, but this reviewer is hesitant to blame him. Harbour, known as Sheriff Hopper from Stranger Things, does the best with the material he’s given and overhauled his physique to play Hellboy. Despite the name “Hellboy”, the character is a grown man, and that’s the biggest issue with this take – the character comes across as whiny rather than conflicted about where his allegiances lie. The sweetness and likeability that should lie just beneath the crimson surface are all but absent.

One of the movie’s big missteps is in depicting the relationship between Hellboy and his adoptive father Bruttenholm. There is no tenderness or affection, only shouting and pointing fingers, such that it’s hard to believe Bruttenholm ever really loved Hellboy. The emotional core of the movie should be that a man decided to adopt a baby monster he was meant to kill. McShane brings gruffness and gravitas to the part, as is his wont, but there isn’t much in the relationship to get invested in.

The one thing in this movie that seemed most enticing was the prospect of Milla Jovovich as a villainess – while she tends to be stiff in action hero roles, Jovovich can be delightfully over-the-top as evil characters. There is a bit of that here, but Nimue is mostly flat and never registers as a truly powerful malevolent force.

Sasha Lane and Daniel Dae Kim attempt to inject personality into their supporting roles, but the things about their respective characters that are interesting are barely explored, while their back-stories are over-explained.

There was every chance that a Hellboy reboot could be done well, and there are tiny indications here of what could’ve been. There are still serviceable moments of action horror and while the jokes are more miss than hit, the general tone is fine. The bits of the film involving Lobster Johnson (Thomas Haden Church) are the most entertaining. Unfortunately, it adds up to a disappointing whole, such that the sequel-bait ending and post-credits scenes feel awfully over-confident.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong