Posted 20 March 2007 - 11:23 AM
As one who goes far too often to the theatre, especially to the same shows, I can definitely notice the difference between a good performance and a bad performance.
I saw Earl Carpenter's first night in Phantom of the Opera, in October 2003 and he was excellent. His singing was a touch weak perhaps, but his acting and portrayal of the character was superb. When I went back to see him in 2006 I thought he was dire. His singing had improved ten-fold but he lost the character and the very charm which made him unique.
I like to see fresh, exciting performances, which usually can only be given by those new to a role, or on as an understudy. As a principal performers start taking liberties, especially if they have been in the show for a number of years. Look at Mark Hutchinson in Blood Brothers... how can you give a fresh, exciting performance every night for fifteen years? You can't. And he doesn't. The lines aren't funny to you after 100,000,000 times, and that will carry through. Especially if you're a 50-year-old man playing an 8-year-old boy.
In 2005 I saw what, (along with my musical loving partner) we agreed was the single worst thing ever seen on the West End stage, a performance of my favourite musical Les Miserables. Every single cast member was a principle, and they were either not up to it (which isn't there fault) or phoning it in. (step forward Mr Michael McCarthy). The lady next to me fell asleep and the two chaps on my partners right didn't come back after the interval. The performance was met with even a few boos at the curtain call, something I have never seen in the west-end before, for even the biggest turkey. Unsurprisingly, a few weeks later at the next cast change, pretty much the entire cast was cleared out.
I saw the very same show (and I'd like to add - with the same ticket price to boot) in October 2006, and it's the single best theatrical performance I have ever seen.
Everyone in the cast was on fire and amazingly the acting was superb from all involved. TWO understudies were on, and they are the best I have seen or heard in the roles they played. They were Rob Archibald (u/s Marius) and Laura Brydon (u/s Eponine) - both superb and better than the principals they were covering who I have since seen.
Other great understudy performances I have seen;
Tomos Griffiths is the best Phantom I have seen or heard (u/s Phantom 2004)
Craig Whitely (u/s Eddie, Blood Brothers, West End 2005) - now doing Blood Brothers tour as Eddie
Oliver Thompsett (u/s Fiyero, Wicked 2006) - hundreds times better than Adam Garcia
Rachel Barrell (u/s Millie, Thoroughly Modern Millie 2006)
I've seen a few bad-uns too, don't get me wrong, but they ALWAYS put in the effort. I saw the understudy Velma last year in Chicago too, she was fine but very nervous, which showed.
I feel it is slightly different with those who are mentioning plays, as I've been talking about musicals. With musicals, especially triple-threat parts, one track isn't that different to another, and usually people will know three or four tracks...
If I went to see say Kenneth Branagh in a play, and got an understudy, I would be disappointed and therefore as good as the understudy is I wouldn't enjoy it because of my disappointment. And the same probably is true for those who go to shows 'just' to see star performers. (I saw Oleanna with Julia Stiles and Aaron Eckhardt and there was no understudy - the show must go on!!)