Tag Archives: Ben Lewis

“The Phantom of the Opera” at Her Majesty’s Theatre

January sales for theatregoers means getintolondontheatre.co.uk, which offers good discounts for big shows, giving me the chance to catch up with an old favourite. Boasting the third longest run in the West End – there’s a reason it’s been going since 1986 – Andrew Lloyd Webber’s phenomenal hit is still a treat.

Based on the novel by Gaston Leroux, with the story effectively captured by Lloyd Webber and Richard Stilgoe’s book, the love triangle between singer Christine, her ghostly tutor, the Phantom, and eligible bachelor Raoul, with a backdrop of 19th-century Paris, makes for a mix of romance and mystery that’s hard to resist. Any element of horror, due to the Phantom’s crime or his deformity, is so deftly handled it adds to the intrigue without giving the show any age restrictions.

There’s no shortage of hits in a score that grabs the audience, and Stilgoe deserves more praise for his admirable lyrics. Plenty of the numbers have been covered by famous singers but they work well theatrically and are delivered in fine style by a cast keen to show their acting skills as much as their fantastic voices.

The show is really Christine’s, played currently by Kelly Mathieson, who gives the role a feisty edge as her character is “twisted every way” by the demands placed on her. If the camp touches get to her by the end of the show, that’s what capes are for and she works hers expertly. Ben Lewis takes the title role, sounding great and managing to show the “man behind the monster” that drives the show. The Phantom is a charismatic and sympathetic figure, despite his pathology. And Jeremy Taylor is also good, even if we all know that Raoul is too bland to really be with Christine.

While the score has aged and the music isn’t as sophisticated as Lloyd Webber’s later musicals, it is always entertaining. It has to be admitted that there’s a lack of menace, even for a family show, with the Phantom stripped of his mask and mystery too early and gaining a touch too much sympathy when you come to consider what he gets up to. But the humour in the show is still strong, and the easy metatheatricality of staging a musical in an opera house works well. The parody behind the scenes extends into the Phantom’s lair in the sewers – there are plenty of hammy touches, many intentional, and it’s impossible not to love it all.

www.thephantomoftheopera.com

Photo by Johan Persson

“Forbidden Broadway” at the Vaudeville Theatre

Forbidden Broadway may modestly describe itself as a “fringe revival transfer” but the hugely successful US show’s latest incarnation is a screamingly funny compendium of songs and impersonations. Relocating from the Menier, the legendary cabaret troupe has just begun a limited run at the Vaudeville Theatre, which can only be good news as the larger venue gives more Londoners a chance to laugh along to this irreverent take on show biz.

Writer and creator Gerard Alessandrini uses the songs from the very shows he lampoons (Les Mis, Phantom, Once et al) taking sweeps at commercialism and, the cardinal sin, laziness. The stolen songs are cleverly adapted, the new lyrics a wickedly guilty pleasure and lazy is one thing you can’t accuse these performers of. The four actors playing multiple characters are astonishing throughout, not least for their costume changes. There isn’t moment when you aren’t getting your money’s worth.

Forbidden Broadway’s other target is celebrity. There’s Kristin Chenoweth, Liza Minnelli, Bernadette Peters, Mandy Patinkin, Cameron Mackintosh and Hugh Jackman. If some of the names don’t ring a bell, don’t worry: the delivery is enough to keep you happy. Christina Bianco and Anna-Jane Casey are marvellous impersonators, their co-stars Damian Humbley and Ben Lewis, similarly, terrific comedians, and affectionate jokes about what it must be like to perform a hit show night after night ring true.

Despite their efforts, the emphasis is on Broadway rather than the West End. But we share many shows and there’s plenty of attention paid to London. The stab at Charlie and The Chocolate Factory (it’s not a good show) is more accurate than funny but songs about the forthcoming revivals of Evita and Cats are superb. If you’ve ever loved a show and are interested in the theatre you’ll laugh long and hard.

Admittedly, there is a danger the show is preaching to the choir. When Forbidden Broadway gets annoyed, demanding more for us as an audience, ironically, it delivers slightly less. But it’s here that you see the passion. There’s so much great theatre out there, there’s no excuse not to put on something superb. A sense of complicity with the creators puts us, the punters, at the fore, wanting the best. So, even if you’ve hated musicals in the past – this could still be the night out for you.

Until 22 November 2014

www.nimaxtheatres.com

Photo by Alastair Muir

Written 16 September 2014 for The London Magazine

“Thérèse Raquin” at the Finborough Theatre

Thérèse Raquin, a new musical with book, lyrics and direction from Nona Shepphard and music by Craig Adams, has just opened at the Finborough Theatre. It’s bold, courageous even, with feet firmly planted on adventurous ground: an exciting evening of musical theatre with operatic ambitions.

Billed as a radical adaptation (you have been warned) by Shepphard it takes inspiration from Émile Zola’s tale of adultery and murder. The characters have a flatness that calls to mind myths or fairy tales – the conviction of Shepphard’s text makes them captivating. And Adams’ piano score is not easy listening, reminiscent of Philip Glass with its choral emphasis, rounds and repetition.

None of this makes it easy for the cast. But even performances that could be finessed win admiration for their bravura – and many of them are fantastic. The excellent Julie Atherton takes the title role, notable for her weighted silence long into the first act. Jeremy Legat has a trickier job as her sickly husband Camille. Legat sounds great but I am not sure about trying to inject some humour into the part. Ben Lewis plays the lover Laurent, complementing his tall, dark and handsome qualifications with a voice that’ll knock your socks off. Thérèse is accompanied by a chorus, with Matt Wilman, who also doubles as an oarsman, standing out. Shepphard puts Madame Raquin at the centre of the show and Tara Hugo gives a startling performance in the role, especially as the elderly lady succumbs to illness.

Shepphard also deserves credit for her directing skills, creating some great theatrical moments that enforce the imagery in her text. The recurring domino evenings, part of why Thérèse feels she is “buried alive” with her mother-in-law and feeble husband, are full of detail. The scene in a morgue, where Laurent tries to face his murderous actions, and a wedding night, with a ghostly reappearance from Camille, are superb.

Ultimately, to its credit, Thérèse Raquin is too big for the Finborough. This tiny venue is often top of my list for a visit, and what it achieves is remarkable, but the potential of this show seems too much. Despite the skillful set design from Laura Cordery, the production, especially the music, deserves a bigger stage. Naïve, perhaps, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if some far-sighted producer took a risk on something as different as this? Here’s hoping.

Until 19 April 2014

www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk

Photo by Darren Bell

Written 2 April 2014 for The London Magazine