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'Phantom' mines gold from stage musical

Category: Phantom of the Opera Reviews
Article Date: December 22, 2004 | Publication: PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW | Author: Ed Blank

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How differently stage and screen work.

For all of the glories of the London and Broadway productions of the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Charles Hart musical "The Phantom of the Opera," the show became even more famous for stage effects (the falling chandelier, the misty river leading to the Phantom's lair) that can't and won't be reproduced nearly so impressively in subsequent productions.

On film, though, a falling chandelier (moved to much later in the story, incidentally) is nothing -- an effect no one ordinarily would mention.

Watching the film, however, I got caught up in visual and practical realities that in live theater one simply accepts as stylized stage business.

Like, how can the Phantom, busy as he is prowling the Paris Opera House and fixating on rehearsals and performances, possibly find time to keep hundreds of candles lighted in his underground, river-accessed lair?

What cleaning service does he use for the tons of draperies and carpeting in such a dank place? How often does his lair flood? And what about the thousands of rats that must lurk? This isn't prime land that would have realtors all aflutter crowing, "Location! Location!"

So it goes as you look over Anthony Pratt's handsome, haunting production design, mainly looking for an escape hatch.

Is the lair so hidden from sewer workers? Opera house repairmen? The Fuller brush man?

Ah, but what a pleasure the score and how good to have a bona fide musical on the big screen -- so rare an occurrence that the film industry lives in perpetual disgrace for letting a great genre all but croak.

"Phantom" is yet another of the variations on "Beauty and the Beast," this one gone Goth and with the emphasis skewed as never before.

Gaston Leroux's 1911 novel has been filmed at least 13 times -- in recent years with more bloodshed than romance.

The latest embodiment of the Phantom (Gerard Butler) is unusually suave and romantic and seemingly younger -- a musical genius tainted by madness. With him wearing so small a mask over facial scarring so slight, you want to ask him if his personal care physician can't recommend a decent dermatologist.

Today it would be so politically incorrect to notice his disfigurement that he'd have his own cable show, "100 Ways to Decorate a Really Damp Basement."

But then, he's mentoring a Christine Daae who is so young (Emmy Rossum turned 17 during production) you wonder if she's seen her first R-rated opera.

She's a chorine and understudy waiting in the wings when the temperamental diva Carlotta (Minnie Driver) storms off after a close encounter with an errant prop.

Christine's best friend Meg (Jennifer Ellison) is the daughter of ballet mistress Madame Giry (Miranda Richardson), who in turn is closer to the disfigured fellow haunting the fly space than anyone.

The story is told as a series of flashbacks from 1919 when a now-aged Vicompte Raoul de Chagny (Patrick Wilson) revisits the crumbling opera house and purchases a sentimental memento during an auction.

We skip back and forth to the main action in 1870, when the disfigured Phantom began courting Christine.

The opera house then was thriving under new managers Andre (Simon Callow) and Firmin (Ciaran Hinds), who are comic figures, and its orchestra was being conducted by the flamboyant Reyer (Murray Melvin).

Christine is spotted by her childhood puppy love, Raoul, who can't help seeming like a cradle robber to such a teen.

The casting alters the balance. Wilson is so pallid a suitor that he barely seems a better match for Christine than the Phantom, who, with a little anger management training ...

But I'm teasing an admirable, atmospheric and darkly romantic work that transported me throughout its 141 minutes.

Lloyd Webber co-wrote the screenplay with director Joel Schumacher, who in turn imposes a welcome, majestic vision ably played to John Mathieson's cinematography.

Only at the engagement party of Christine and Raoul and in a sword duel between Raoul and the Phantom does the film degenerate into a blur of shots unworthy of so well-designed a movie.

The story imposes conceits within conceits (that the Phantom could step into a carefully blocked opera without rehearsal, for example), but they detract only a little from the show's merits, which include lush, beautifully sung songs that roll from the screen with enveloping rapture.

All of the best-known portions of the stage score are here including "The Music of the Night," "The Point of No Return," "Think of Me," "Angel of Music," "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again" and "All I Ask of You."

One new song has been added, "Learn to Be Lonely," which would be Oscar-eligible. The song belongs to the character Carlotta, but it's dubbed for Driver (the one non-singer in a central role) by Margaret Preece.

The high ratio of music to dialogue automatically stylizes and mutes relationships, especially for a movie audience. It may be most useful to regard this "Phantom" as a grandly staged preservation of an equally worthwhile theater piece.

You're bound to encounter some critical carping, but it will almost certainly be from folks who neither enjoy nor appreciate musical theater and do not or cannot access its particular conventions.

To the rest, and they are legion: Bon appetit.


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