Grand illusion

Category: Phantom of the Opera Reviews | Posted by: admin
Article Date: December 22, 2004 | Publication: Rocky Mountain News | Author: Robert Denerstein
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Drama of stage musical proves elusive for lavish 'Phantom'

If you think that The Phantom of the Opera, Andrew Lloyd Webber's much-loved musical based on Gaston Leroux's 1911 novel, has been around forever, you're close to right. That's an exaggeration, of course, but Webber's lavish musical has been playing in London for 18 years and has had an equally big impact in the United States.

Show me a person who can't hum Music of the Night - the play's showcase tune - and I'll show you someone who has been vaccinated against Broadway.

The film version, first discussed in 1986, arrives on screen with director Joel Schumacher at the helm and a cast whose names aren't about to light up many marquees. It's as if Schumacher and Webber - who raised the money for the movie himself - decided that the material is star enough to carry the day.

For Phantom fans, it may be.

I suppose a movie such as this demands that one take an immediate position. I'm happy to accommodate: To me, the show sometimes seems a bit like a one-note musical stretched into mock-opera proportions, a mixture of beauty and bloat.

Still, the beauty is real, and Schumacher's big-screen adaptation has no shortage of lovely moments. The sheer ambition of this lavish production impresses. Schumacher's well-considered approach emphasizes a mournful quality in the material - which becomes a lament for the lost magic of the Opera Populaire and perhaps even for a Paris that may only have existed in the imagination.

To make the point, Schumacher separates the musical's acts with funereal black-and-white interludes set at a later date, a point at which the color has been drained from life.

Those who saw Sarah Brightman and Michael Crawford in the original (not me) undoubtedly will find much over which to cavil. Most of the criticism probably will center on the disfigured Phantom, played here by Gerard Butler whose voice can rasp in ways that aren't always pleasing. He's an ominous presence, though, and Butler does better with his acting than with the singing.

The big find here is Emmy Rossum, who played Sean Penn's murdered daughter in Mystic River and who has sung with the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Rossum's sweet voice more than handles the task of playing Christine, the innocent girl who's plucked from the chorus to sing the lead in a production of Hannibal. Christine's good fortune upsets the company's resident diva, La Carlotta, played with the right comic flourish by Minnie Driver.

Christine, of course, has been tutored by the Phantom, whom she thinks of as the Angel of Music, an inspirational figure her late father pledged would watch over her.

No Phantom can be totally without horror. The disfigured Phantom (who does not look repelling enough here) takes Christina under wing. He vows to wreak havoc on the company when the lead role is taken from her.

Schumacher has added welcome psychology to the big-screen version. We learn more about the Phantom's background, and light is shed on the connection between the Phantom and the company's no-nonsense ballet mistress (Miranda Richardson).

For comic relief, Schumacher brings on Simon Callow and Ciaran Hinds as the clueless new owners of the opera house. The movie's love triangle - both the Phantom and the young Raoul (Patrick Wilson), nobleman and opera patron, love Christine - remains intact, though it's not especially gripping.

If one were looking for great drama, one would find only traces of it in Phantom. The essential ingredients are melodramatic, as befits some of Webber's more emphatic orchestral effusions.

Not all audiences have been taken by Webber's musical, but almost everyone who has seen the show takes note of the bells-and-whistles staging. Schumacher follows suit, and set designer Anthony Pratt understands the imperative: to make a Phantom that provides audiences with a sense of magic and longing.

Schumacher (Veronica Guerin and Phone Booth) has made big movies - the disappointing Batman & Robin being one - but he's never attempted anything quite this voluptuous. He's breaking new ground. He may not always be successful, but Webber's lushly romantic score (played in this instance by a 100-piece orchestra) has the ability to overpower lingering reservations.
As the Phantom, Gerard Butler is an ominous presence whose acting outshines his singing in the film version of the classic The Phantom of the Opera.
Our Rating: B