The Phantom of the Opera

Riverside Theatre, Parramatta, February 6

Erin Clare and Ben Mingay. Photo: supplied

Erin Clare and Ben Mingay. Photo: supplied

Approached by Riverside Theatres, Parramatta to produce quality productions of musicals for family audiences at affordable prices, Neil Gooding has found a winning formula with Packemin Productions.

Established in 2010, Packemin stages pro-am productions of major shows (Annie, Hairspray and Beauty and the Beast among others) for a fraction of the budget of the professional productions – and does a terrific job. In just five years, it has built quite a following and reputation.

Under Gooding’s canny leadership, Packemin’s productions feature a handful of professionals in leading roles, alongside a large cast of talented community performers. Staging-wise, the production values are pretty high given the tight budgets, while the tickets cost less than $50.

Packemin’s latest production is The Phantom of the Opera, one of the most phenomenally popular musicals of all time.

Obviously Packemin can’t match the lavish spectacle and superlative production values of the Really Useful/Cameron Macintosh production but they have a damn good shot at it.

A large chandelier does its stuff most effectively, the boat that takes the Phantom and Christine to his subterranean lair glides across the stage through swirling smoke, the rest of the sets are evocative, while the impressive costumes lend plenty of colour. All in all, it looks great.

The cast is led by Ben Mingay as the Phantom. As a bass baritone, the role doesn’t sit naturally in his vocal sweet spot and his voice doesn’t soar in the upper register as others before him have done, but he uses his rich baritone well. He also brings a dark, brooding charisma to the role.

Claudio Sgaramella as Piangi and Johanna Allen as Carlotta. Photo: supplied

Claudio Sgaramella as Piangi and Johanna Allen as Carlotta. Photo: supplied

Johanna Allen is glorious as the flouncing opera diva Carlotta, unleashing a torrent of crocodile tears, pouts and indignant demands. Her comic timing is impeccable and she nails the role vocally.

Erin Clare uses her soprano well as Christine, though could bring a little more innocence to the role initially, while Joshua Keane makes a dashing young Raoul. Christopher Hamilton and Gavin Brightwell are very funny as the opera managers, working together with a lovely ease and assurance, and Michele Lansdown is a suitably dour Madame Giry.

It’s great to see such a large ensemble (around 40) on stage, all of whom perform with great commitment and verve. Musical director Peter Hayward leads a solid 21-strong orchestra.

The opening night audience was enormously enthusiastic and the rest of the season is now sold out. Next up from Packemin, Mary Poppins in July.

Gooding is emphatic that Packemin doesn’t position itself as a rival to the large-scale professional productions, which have budgets a pro-am company like this can only dream of. But Packemin is another lively element in Sydney’s musical theatre scene, and a great success story.

The Phantom of the Opera runs at the Riverside Theatre, Parramatta until February 21


Ben Mingay

Slide Cabaret, May 23

Ben Mingay. Photo: supplied

Ben Mingay. Photo: supplied

Ben Mingay puts the bloke into cabaret in his new show, presented as part of the Slide Cabaret Festival. Making an unorthodox entry, he spends the night in work boots, boardies and ratty T-shirt, with a tinnie close to hand. (The supplied picture above is so not his look here!)

The show has an interval so I imagined that he would return in the second act in something more like the promo shot but, no, he merely traded one T-shirt for another.

The contrast between his downbeat look and the camp glamour of Slide is all part of the fun, of course, and Mingay – who did start out in construction – has such a laid-back, laddish charm that he pulls it off with aplomb. (Having got the joke in the first act, though, I reckon a costume change for the second could be good, adding another dimension). He tells his stories with a rough, throwaway charm and endearing honesty that feels absolutely authentic – and he knows how to spin a good yarn.

His rich, rumbling baritone works a treat across genres (rock, country, musical theatre and opera) as he traces his journey from construction worker for his Dad in Newcastle to a pub rock band to classical voice studies at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music to roles in musicals including Hair, South Pacific, Dirty Dancing in the US and Jersey Boys. (An Officer and a Gentleman doesn’t get a mention). There’s also a passing reference to his role in Channel Ten’s Wonderland.

Backed by a four-piece band led by Bev Kennedy on piano, Mingay opens the show with “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” from Oklahoma! From there his song list takes in everything from “Working Class Man” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” to “Some Enchanted Evening” from South Pacific and Leporello’s catalogue song from Mozart’s Don Giovanni (complete with a make-shift prop on the back of a beer carton).

At the Slide gig, he invited David Harris on stage to sing “The Confrontation” from Les Misérables with him (both made it to the final auditions for the production about to open in Melbourne), while his partner, musical theatre performer Kirby Burgess, joined him for rousing versions of “House of the Rising Sun” and “Time of my Life” from Dirty Dancing.

All in all a thoroughly entertaining show from a rough diamond with a wonderful voice. Developing a warm rapport with the audience, Mingay shares enough of himself that by the end of the night you feel that you really do know a fair bit about him. And didn’t the sell-out crowd love him.