In Joel Schumacher's "The Phantom of the Opera," it's sometimes hard to tell the characters from the candelabra. This lavish screen version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical is so chockablock with decorative detail the human figures are often competing with the decor for attention: Baroque balustrades, flower-strewn dressing rooms, a chandelier to end all chandeliers, and the title character's murky subterranean grotto, which, depending on your point of view, evokes either a brooding 19th-century painting or a new Disneyland ride. Sometimes the sets win, but not when Emmy Rossum is around as Christine, the lovely chorus girl whom the disfigured Phantom (Gerard Butler)--her mysterious "Angel of Music"--is molding into the Paris Opera's next great star. The 18-year-old may not have the acting chops of a seasoned pro, but with a pure-as-crystal soprano voice to match her dark beauty, she's a heart-stopping presence.
What can I tell the millions of fans who've made Lloyd Webber's breast-beating musical the most successful stage show in history ($3.3 billion and counting)? As someone who just doesn't get it--its kitschy romanticism bored me on Broadway and it bores me here--I may not be the most reliable witness. Still, I can easily imagine a more dashing, charismatic Phantom than Butler's. A shouter, he lacks mystery, and without it the love triangle with Christine and Patrick Wilson's ardent Raoul is a non-starter. Rest assured, how-ever, Lloyd Webber's neo-Puccinian songs--ravishingly recorded under Simon Lee's baton--are all there, reprised and reprised and reprised until you're guaranteed to go out humming.