Phantom is a behemoth of a musical, the kind that can run for over 25 years on Broadway, even for the whole of this decade. It’s the kind of musical that can, in New York, cast a guy who sexually assaulted a minor to play the Phantom and remain virtually untouched. It’s the kind of musical, perhaps only along with Les Miserables, that has introduced whole generations to musical theatre. It is the kind of show that everyone has a story about. First times seeing it, opinions on the film adaptation and various recordings, an internal ranking of favourite Phantoms, a kind of collective ownership it spawned of one of our greats, Anthony Warlow, among those who saw his turn. It’s the kind of show that survives a contentious sequel.
Everything about it, from the heft of its legacy to the complexity of its staging (have you heard the one about the chandelier?) says that it’s too big for Packemin’s modest pro-am model.
But Neil Gooding makes magic on tight budgets; Neil Gooding understands theatre and Parramatta and Packemin, and he makes Phantom shine. It’s a big old beast but in Gooding’s hands it feels delightfully accessible, but never divorced from magic.
When the organ kicks in for the title song, that telltale moment that says everything about the mega-musical and the eighties and Andrew Lloyd-Webber, it’s a moment. If this is your first Phantom, you’ll feel, right then, what everyone has felt for the first time: completely unapologetic, unironic, excitement.
The score is a little too tricky for the generally quite fine orchestra (led by musical director Peter Hayward), but that’s forgivable because Packemin is never pretentious, and perfection is treated as the impossibility it should be. Packemin finds drama and heart and usually some sense of narrative truth, and it means that we’re seeing is something that speaks to the simplest love of musicals in those who love them.
Packemin’s Phantom says, we’re going to put on a show and your feelings are going to rise and fall and be shaped by the music and lyrics. And so we are.
Ben Mingay is a bit of a non-entity of a Phantom. He struggles with his upper register and his vocal performance is shaky, but Mingay has an innate aggression to even his softer passages that help pull him through the show. His Christine is Erin Clare, young and green and tasked with carrying such a large show, which she does quite well. Michele Lansdown’s Madame Giry is severe and intriguing.
Johanna Allen is the star of the show as diva Carlotta, who has never been so alive and so funny; Allen is a considerable gift to the production because her sense of comic timing is impeccable. She huffs and sighs and objects with trills and bursts of indignant sound, she carries herself with all Carlotta’s inflated sense of importance, and it’s hilarious.
Hot on her heels are Christopher Hamilton and Gavin Brightwell as Andre and Firmin, respectively. They work with the ease of a decades-long comedic partnership and the joy of an old vaudeville double act, and become our greatest constant talent through the piece; every time they appear on the stage the audience is visibly more comfortable. They’re in good hands with Hamilton and Brightwell and they know it, and the pair elevate “Notes…” to enjoyable heights.
Camilla Jakimowicz and her ballet corps and her choreography is lively and inclusive. There’s something boisterous about it, even when it’s refined, which helps to make the old-fashioned style of the show’s internal operas much more charming.
And there is a chandelier on the quiet gothic set, the most ostentatious piece of Neil Shotter’s technical design, as it should be, and when it rises to its place above our heads it’s a moment, and when it falls it’s a moment, and it’s the fact that Packemin nails the moments, the ones that elicit the deepest reaction, is what separates Gooding’s musical theatre acumen from so many others. He knows to get to the heart of a piece. He knows which beats must be hit, which successful moments will forgive shoestring budgets and unpolished performances, and it works, because how can you be anything but forgiving when the show gets to the part of you that just wants to enjoy a story?
Thank goodness for Packemin, who bring economic and geographic diversity to Sydney’s musical theatre landscape. Thank goodness for their sense of fun and their ambition and their success. Let’s hope they stick around.