'Phantom' Hits the Right Notes

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 24, 2004

DON'T BE AFRAID: "Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera" isn't just for music fans. It's more accessible than that, thanks to Joel Schumacher's bright direction and a few storytelling embellishments. But remember: You are reading the review of a Phantom rube, who knows next to nothing about Phantom-iana (note to self: Check Amazon.com for a " 'Phantom' for Dummies" book), and would only go to a stage musical at gunpoint.

As for hardcore Phantomaniacs (they've read Gaston Leroux's original book, own a signed poster of Lon Chaney, have built a Sarah Brightman shrine in their living room, attended 14 stage productions in London and New York, and so on), I know they'll have their druthers. Some lyrics are spoken, some songs have been trimmed, and the big expansive gestures required for stage musicals have been pared to subtler levels, to suggest just a few potential areas of impassioned debate.

But there's still a sense of a big show here. The sets, costumes and decor are lavish. Emmy Rossum (Christine) and Gerard Butler (the Phantom) may not hold a candle to Brightman and Michael Crawford (stars of the renowned 1980s stage show directed by Harold Prince). And this phantom is something of a stud with a teeny mask that hides little more than a mild skin problem. But the two are pretty and peppy. (You were looking for depth?) And to this set of tin ears, at least Rossum, a trained opera singer, has an impressive set of pipes.

The year is 1919. (Schumacher films this opening sequence persuasively in grainy black-and-white to mirror the silent movies of that time.) Paris's Opera Populaire has fallen into seedy disrepair. Two significant and aged characters, Madame Giry (Miranda Richardson) and Raoul (Patrick Wilson) enter the rundown building to attend an auction. Some of the items include a mechanical music box with a cymbal-clapping monkey and a huge, dusty chandelier under a shroud. Ahh, that chandelier! The one that illuminated the glorious world of opera, circa 1870. And back in time we go . . .

. . . To the days when the opera was a thriving industry of performers, chorus girls, set decorators, stagehands and well-dressed audiences. (The color returns to the movie.) As we enter this time, stroppy diva Carlotta (an enjoyably over-the-top Minnie Driver) is upset about this and that, and the opera's new owners (Ciaran Hinds and Simon Callow) are desperately trying to placate her. When she refuses to perform that night, someone suggests Christine for a replacement. She knows the routines, the songs, everything.

Christine's immediate success on stage reunites her with childhood sweetheart Raoul de Chagny (Wilson again), who happens to be the Opera's patron. But Christine is also in thrall to another presence, the spectral Angel of Music (aka the Phantom), who lives in the basement. He trained Christine as a girl. He'll do anything to further her career. Watch out, Carlotta. And watch out, Raoul: The Phantom doesn't just like her singing.

There is much more to come, as Christine struggles with her conflicted passions (Good guy? Bad guy? Good skin? Bad skin?), and the Phantom makes threatening demands on the company. Christine, he declares, must remain the star or woe betide everyone. There are some secrets of the past to be uncovered, known only to the Phantom and Madame Giry (also Richardson).

And of course, there are the songs -- most of the reason people have turned Lloyd Webber's original show into the best-selling musical ever. It's now in its 18th year, playing on stages around the world. Director Schumacher, who wrote the screenplay with Lloyd Webber (also the main producer of the movie), was given a tough job. He knew that "Phantom" needed little selling to the already converted. But he also knew they had to be satisfied. And then there are the cultural cavemen like me, who haven't paid attention to Lloyd Webber since Ted Neeley and Carl Anderson locked vocal horns in the stage and movie versions of "Jesus Christ Superstar." All in all, this "Phantom" seems to be a satisfying solution.

ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER'S THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (PG-13, 140 minutes) -- Contains some brief violent images. Area theaters.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company