Last Night: Sarah Brightman at the HP Pavilion
Brightman Visits Dark Side in Her Partially Gothic Show - Chirpily
San Jose HP Pavilion
December 17, 2008
Review by Meredith Brody; Photos by Janine Kahn
It was a dress that did it.
Or, more accurately, it was a photograph of Sarah Brightman in a completely mad dress, a layered, ruffled, puffy red Marie Antoinette extravaganza complete with a massive bustle and train, leaking twirls of tulle, the front cut out drastically to reveal thigh-high boots of shiny red patent leather laced up the front, that made me want to see Sarah Brightman perform for the first time since I involuntarily caught her in Phantom of the Opera on Broadway.
She'd been gallivanting around Britain's pop world for more than a decade, as it turned out, but her performance as the Phantom's obsession in the musical carefully crafted for her by her then-husband Andrew Lloyd Webber was effectively her introduction to the States.
And it left me cold. I didn't like the shrieking score, the rather wooden performances, or the falling chandelier, whose much-vaunted collapse seemed to me as slow and overblown as the rest of the ponderous production.
America disagreed, and Phantom became the longest-running show on Broadway. But for years it only took hearing one lyric ("The Phan-tom of the O-pe-ra is there, inside my mind,") to send me into a fit of helpless giggles.
Sarah Brightman's musical comedy career appeared to the casual observer to end. She re-invented herself as a slightly bizarre crossover artist, singing semi-demi-hemi light classical music that seemed odd issuing forth from her googly-eyed, chipmunk-cheeked, toothily-overbitten visage, eerily reminiscent of the perky English 30s star Jessie Matthews.
But, as a friend once said when asked why he'd purchased tickets for the Olympics when he'd never betrayed any penchant for sporting events, I'm interested in atmosphere and spectacle. Having enjoyed big arena song-and-dance shows of a variety of artistes, not all of whose music thrilled me, including Cher, Bette Midler, Tina Turner, and the once-and-forever Madonna, I figured, what the hell.
And "what the hell?" was the theme of yesterday night's Brightman extravaganza, known as the Symphony tour, which played the HP Pavilion for one night only. We had just congratulated ourselves for finding free parking within inches of the $20 lots when we found out that the miserable concession stands had run out of hot dogs and Polish sausages (what the hell?), of which we were in dire need, since we'd driven for more than an hour-and-a-half direct from the office in rush-hour 101 traffic. The extent of our hunger can be judged by the fact that we purchased an order of that weird combo of stale round corn chips and sticky cheese sauce known only in movie theaters and sporting venues as "nachos."
The arena was heavily sold, if not exactly sold out; still, an impressive showing for a freezing-cold Wednesday night. The lights went out and indeterminate white projections played across the arena, while portentous syntho-pop played. Scattered applause greeted an apparition downstage, which looked like a heap of layers of fabric, which eventually started moving slowly towards an apparently mystified audience.
"The excitement is palpable," I whispered to my companion, because it wasn't. After bells tolling, and a thunder effect, two acolytes removed some Miss Havisham-like, Corpse-Bride veils, revealing Sarah Brightman in a red dress (not the red dress, this one was strapless and va-va-va voomy, showing plenty of décolletage), whose skirt rustled from a carefully-placed wind machine as she launched into song, surrounded by eight red-dressed dancers who performed vaguely Martha-Grahamesque moves as she sang and twirled her dress higher than the wind machine did, and moved carefully on incredibly high heels down a catwalk extension into the audience.
Behind her was a narrow stage, a deep pit, and a mirrored set in three pieces, and behind the set could be glimpsed seven live musicians who often managed to sound like a relentless pre-recorded track. After the first song, in a polite, little-girl English voice, she chirped "Ladies and gentlemen, I've had the most wonderful career for about thirty years now, none of this would be possible without you," and described the concert as her "gift to us" in this holiday season.
The gift kept on giving.
The eight girls sometimes performed with her, sometimes danced in order for Brightman to totter backstage on her Mae West-high heels and do a quick-change to emerge in another bizarre and dazzling getup.
When she sang about rain, there were back projections of rain. But after a vaguely Japanesey number with the girls twirling parasols, Brightman came out not as the expected geisha but in a short spangly tutu outfit with towering thigh-high boots.
The audience seemed to enjoy everything (save the lone voice from the cheap seats heard urging Brightman to step away from her position within the set that obscured his view, as if she could change one iota of such a carefully-planned spectacle).
And, in fact, I enjoyed almost everything, especially the numbers when Brightman lay down flat on her back in the pit, her dancers deployed around her, reflected in the tilted mirrored set so they all appeared to be floating, as she sang and they danced in choreography part Esther Williams, part Busby Berkeley. The Flora Dora Girls, they were.
I enjoyed the wacky projections, even the twee pink and purple butterflies that morphed into stars. I enjoyed the frequent and lavish costume changes (but the extensions falling halfway down the back stayed on, topped by a tiara). I enjoyed the chorus girls running around as Alice in Wonderland creatures, inexplicably joined by one of their number togged out as Little Red Riding Hood, then leaving the stage to reveal Brightman as another Red Riding Hood singing while pedaling away on a stationary bike surrounded by holograms of Big Bad Wolves on bikes themselves. I enjoyed the occasional Gothic overtones, undercut by Brightman's essential British chirpiness. I enjoyed the sometimes-inexplicable sets -- why was she hauled up a ladder to sing perched on a Princess-and-the-Pea stack of gilded mattresses atop a gilded bed? The lyrics of whatever she was singing gave me no clue. And beyond mere enjoyment was the thrill of seeing her being lifted
ever higher above the audience on a swing (which, beyond a couple of
cautious pushes by the girls right after she got on, didn't, of course,
swing), trailing a train longer than Princess Di's wedding dress, a
sight worthy of the great Ziegfeld.
What I didn't fully enjoy was the music, a lot of which sounded alike to me, due to the synth-pop arrangements, and Brightman's own earnest but inexpressive style. The pop sounded as bombastic as the operatic stuff. (Which is why they call it "popera.") And her range of gesture and movement is so limited that I'm amazed when I learn from her website that she began as a dancer with groups called Pan's People on Top of the Pops and the risqué Hot Gossip.
But the spectacle was still pretty damned spectacular (and it should be, at ticket prices that ran from $49.50 to $250. Plus, for an additional $495 -- ! -- a "meet-and-greet" with Brightman, including a photo taken with the star). My favorites: Sarah in The Dress and the Boots, while her girls, in pink tutus, sawed away with real bows at pretend violins, sitting in gold-caned chairs. And, after the twenty-minute intermission, the girls coming out in 50s red satin party dresses, holding enormous red balloons, while Sarah, in a shiny green goddess dress, mimed turning on an old-fashioned gramophone and then sang lying flat on her back on the catwalk, with tulips projected on the mirrored set and the girls doing Egyptian-frieze, Bollywood choreography. What the hell? The balloons, released at the end of the number, periodically popped and fell to earth during the duration of the show.
But they were only a minor distraction from the relentless presentation. A cape was added and Brightman sang "The Phantom of the Opera is there, inside my mind," and I didn't giggle, because she'd gained my respect by being a real trouper. She's one of those people who needs to perform, whose show might seem something like a little girl playing dress-up and swanning around in front of a mirror in her bedroom, but in time-honored show-biz Iron Butterfly tradition, she's convinced a whole lot of people that she deserves to be a star.
A couple of European guy singers ambled out: Mario Frangoulis, a Greek tenor, for a few numbers, including The hit Brightman originally sang with Andrea Bocelli, "Time to Say Goodbye", and Fernando Lima, an Argentinian countertenor, who joined her for an "Ave Maria" that Brightman, oddly, sang from lyric sheets on a music stand. A holiday-themed number, with Brightman in a short white dress and towering white platform shoes so heavy she could barely lift her feet, featured the girls attired like Radio City Rockette cheerleaders in red shako hats and white pompoms, ended in a blast of silver confetti (earlier there'd been red petals, which the front of the orchestra reached their hands out for in supplicating, religious gestures).
By the end of the show, I had a fondness and respect for the old girl, who's 48 and now looks nothing like the toothy, chipmunk-cheeked girl whose visage still greets you on the Internet. She could almost pass for one of her twentyish dancers, in the dark with a light behind her (which, as it happens, is how most shows are seen). Her arms, while not muscled-up like Madonna's, are particularly impressive.
When a few in the audience yell "I love you, Sarah," I ponder crying out "I think you're an interesting show biz phenomenon." And I now have plans to return to San Jose to see Celine Dion. What the hell.