Lloyd Webber’s music carries ‘Phantom’

Since its premiere in 1986, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s megamusical “The Phantom of the Opera” has become the most frequently performed stage show in the world. That’s a triumph that might satisfy even the theatrically minded Phantom himself.

So where has the movie version been all this time? Musicals have been a ghostly presence in Hollywood for years, but you’d think this blockbuster would be a special case.

Music of the night: Lavish adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical version, and more of a document of the show than a movie in its own right, hampered by a Phantom (Gerard Butler) who doesn’t sing well.

Rated: PG-13 rating is for violence.

Now showing: Grand, Mountlake 9, Guild 45th, Meridian 16, Oak Tree, Woodinville 12, Cascade

Well, here it is … and a little past its time, somehow.

Even if you haven’t seen the stage show, you know the story. Gaston Leroux’s novel has served for many movie adaptations, from Lon Chaney’s creepifying 1925 silent picture to Brian De Palma’s 1974 rock ‘n’ roll “Phantom of the Paradise.”

In the 1870s, a disfigured man lives in the catacombs beneath the Paris opera house, manipulating the lives of the people who ply their trade there. This skulking figure, played here by Gerard Butler, is fixated on a young singer he has stealthily trained, Christine (Emmy Rossum).

After Christine’s success onstage, the Phantom leads her to his lair and declares his love. He wears a mask, so if she squints a little, she can imagine maybe falling for this recluse in his watery cave and making a life together.

The Phantom kills someone every once in a while, which makes matters difficult, and Christine is also being courted by Raoul (Patrick Wilson), a wealthy and handsome patron of the opera.

It would all be very silly if it weren’t so wonderfully big and romantic and, well, operatic. And Lloyd Webber’s incorrigibly catchy melodies carry the material along on a delirious cloud of swoon. (The lyrics, by Charles Hart, are not as irresistible.)

As someone who’d never seen the stage production, I confess I enjoyed watching the film, just to see how the grand old story got translated. It does, however, have its share of dull patches, and one casting mistake seriously hampers the picture.

Gerard Butler, an actor who made a good impression alongside Angelina Jolie in “Tomb Raider 2,” doesn’t really have a singing voice. If you’re going to watch a musical, you really want to hear people sing the notes; Butler mangles the high parts, and his delivery in general is corny. The Phantom’s signature song, “The Music of the Night,” a bring-down-the-house number by any standard, suffers because of it.

He’s balanced by Emmy Rossum, a delicate beauty who has just the right romantic presence. Along with being a convincing actress (she was Sean Penn’s daughter in “Mystic River”), she’s also a trained opera singer.

Minnie Driver provides some rare comic relief as a bossy prima donna, Miranda Richardson appears as a ballet mistress with a secret connection to the Phantom, and Simon Callow and Ciaran Hinds have fun as the theater managers.

“Phantom” is directed by Joel Schumacher, hand-picked by Lloyd Webber for the job. Schumacher has experience with movies about masked men, as he made the awful “Batman Forever” and “Batman and Robin.” He brings his usual vulgar touch, but it’s not quite enough to bring the material to life (except in the rehearsal scenes).

It’s a lavish production, with opulent sets and costumes, and a rather legendary chandelier. The Phantom’s subterranean pad is a cool horror-movie cave, complete with a wax mannequin of Christine.

The “Phantom” faithful will probably buy a lot of DVDs of this movie, even the people who complained about the original stage stars, Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman, being left out. (They take these things seriously.) It’s more a document of the show than a movie in its own right, and perhaps that will be enough for die-hards.

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