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A Phantom of its Former Self

Low marks for the movie version of The Phantom of the Opera but high marks for featured actors in four plays recently seen. logo
Emmy Rossum and Gerard Butler
in The Phantom of the Opera
We wanted to like the film version of The Phantom of the Opera. In a cinema landscape virtually barren of musicals, it would have given us great pleasure to extol the virtues of this transfer from stage to screen. Hoping that the critical and commercial success of Chicago would not turn out to have been a fluke, we sat in high anticipation as the lights went down and the movie began...

The opening sequences of Phantom are spectacular. The film begins as a black and white photo that comes to life; the camera swoops in from a distant long shot to a more intimate, almost prying point of view that almost makes us feel we're watching archival silent movie footage. We're inside an abandoned Paris opera house where an auction is taking place. Significant looks are passed between the aged participants. All is muted and subdued -- until a shattered chandelier, now restored, is unveiled, lit, and then is raised once again. As it rises, the black and white footage gives way to color, transforming the opera house to its remembered glory. This thrilling visual is an exquisitely cinematic segue into the flashback that is, in fact, the story of Phantom. Unfortunately, the movie never comes anywhere near that kind of brilliance again.

There's surely no need for us to relate the plot; if there's a TheaterMania reader who hasn't seen Phantom on Broadway, we'd be very surprised. By the same token, there's no need to discuss the score. It is what it is. Either you hear it as lush and romantic or you find it overbearing. These battles were fought long ago; the issue at hand is whether the famous stage version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's pop opera has been successfully adapted to the screen. Taken on its own terms, is this a movie musical that works? We are heartbroken to report that it is not.

Phantom should have been easily adaptable to the screen; indeed, the stage version was a movie waiting to be made. Making it into a smash movie musical should have been a no-brainer, given the right sensibility on the part of the director. Enter Joel Schumacher, who made one wrong choice after another. He has turned what might have been an exciting stunner of a film into an empty, emotionless music video.

Start with the casting. Gerard Butler is wrong for the title role on two counts. The first is that the guy's a hunk! (He should be at least a little scary-looking.) The second is that he doesn't have the voice for the part. Butler doesn't offer "The Music of the Night"; it's more like the music of mid-afternoon. He often sounds as if he's straining and he rarely sustains a musical phrase. Young newcomer Emmy Rossum (The Songcatcher), has a beautiful, sweet innocence and a warm soprano voice, but did anyone inquire if she could act? She walks through the movie with essentially one expression of open-eyed vulnerability on her face. Patrick Wilson looks good on film but is a bit bland as Raoul; he makes little impact in the part. Only Miranda Richardson as Madame Giry gives a genuinely vivid, emotionally grounded performance.

A scene from The Phantom of the Opera
One of the most unsettling aspects of the movie, which is virtually sung through, is how little emotion there is on the faces of the leads when they're singing. Their lips move (a little) and these big sounds reach our ears, but there is some sort of disconnect between the performers and the lyrics; their faces almost never wrinkle with expression, no matter what's coming out of their mouths. The effect is perverse and distancing.

Nothing is more perverse, however, than the film's editing. In crucial scenes of film, editing is much like making a key change: Just as one modulates to raise the temperature of the music, one edits within a scene to do the same. But not Schumacher! In the famous "Point of No Return" sequence near the end of Phantom, the title character is risking everything to win Christine. He's on the opera stage with her, in front of everyone. Does Schumacher cut to a close-up? No. Does he cut to another angle of the same scene? No. He cuts away to a group of dancers who are tangential to the drama. At this moment, the emotional potency of the scene just dies, and you almost want to laugh out loud at the sheer stupidity of the choice.

Schumacher doesn't muck up everything. The scene wherein Christine goes to visit her father's grave is a splendid piece of gothic filmmaking. It's creepy, atmospheric, and visually arresting -- but it's the exception to the rule. What a disappointment.


When Supporting Players Shine

In several shows that we've recently seen, supporting actors really made their mark. Very often, relatively unknown actors such as the ones we're going to cite here are so talented that they begin to work regularly and eventually become familiar faces in the theater:

    Jenn Harris and Jason Biggs in Modern Orthodox
    (Photo © Richard Mitchell)
  • There are three major stars in Modern Orthodox: Craig Bierko, Jason Biggs, and Molly Ringwald. All of them give solid performances in a play that is often as irritating as it is funny, but it's a relatively unknown actress named Jenn Harris who steals the show. A slightly less sour version of Jackie Hoffman, Harris has impeccable comic timing and a winning delivery that turns her one scene into a highlight.

  • Keith Nobbs was the ostensible star of the Keen Company's The Hasty Heart, a finely crafted revival of a World War II play by John Patrick. (The show closed on December 18.) But the actor who dominated the show was a fellow named Chris Hutchison. He played Yank, the American soldier who engaged in a battle of wills with the Scottish soldier played by Nobbs. As far as we're concerned, Nobbs was miscast here; but Hutchison was perfect, giving a performance of grit, humor, and humanity.

  • Matthew Broderick is wonderful in the revival of The Foreigner at the Laura Pels, but the actor who you'll end up looking up in your Playbill is Kevin Cahoon, who plays the sweet but slow Ellard Simms. His charming comic performance is a real grace note in an amusing but otherwise forgettable farce.

  • There's only one actor in A Tale of a Tiger at the 59E59 Theater complex, but he's amazing. His name is Ami Dayan. He plays a Chinese soldier, a tigress and her cub, and all sorts of other characters in a winsome fairytale told with ineffable charm and style. We recommend both the player and the play.


[To contact the Siegels directly, e-mail them at [email protected].]

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