Sunday, March 13, 2005

The Name of The Game

Since Fr. Hamilton makes no mention of the concerns that the evening at Mamma Mia generated, we all know what the name of the game is. The name of the game is "Let's leave Fr. Tharp to take the hit for criticizing a show by taking it too seriously when it is clearly a fluff piece." Just for that, there will be a very subtle punishment dispensed not only to him but also to all the blog's readers. Let's hope it is not so subtle that no one notices.

Mamma Mia is the story of one girl's marriage and the effort to find her biological father. You see, mom met three men within the space of a few days and well, it was the 70's after all. Mom ends up pregnant but all three men leave. Mom raise the child on her own and does a pretty good job. But the daughter wants her dad to give her away for the wedding. So the daughter invites all three men to the island. Hilarity and hijinks ensue. Since some readers might want to see this musical, I will endeavor to not spill the beans about anything else.

Mamma Mia is known in the industry as a "slam musical" i.e. pre-existing songs are "slammed" into a story line or structure. This, of course, can be an enormous deficit to overcome because the audience is waiting, with baited breath, for a misplaced or badly placed song. I can say that with MM this was not the case. By and large, the songs were cleverly and masterfully integrated into the book of the musical. Here are two examples. Early in Act One, we meet Donna, a struggling hostel/bar owner on an unspecified Greek Island. The writers naturally have the cast break out into a rendition of "Gimme, Gimme, Gimme!" which extols the need for money in a rich man's world. Late in Act Two, the token feminist character and flat stereotype adventurer writer (and I couldn't help but think of Hunter S. Thompson at the same time) are alone right before the wedding and both are bemoaning their single status. Can you guess what happened next? The feminist character simply sang "If you change your mind..." and then cringed. It was a great use of the song, "Take a Chance on Me." This leads me to also compliment staging and choreography. Since this was a touring company, I suspect that the choreography is set for all shows, and everyone learns the same thing. However, with that said, I did find some of the blocking a little stiff, a face front style. In any other show, this could be excused or expected, but that the other elements were so well done, these little missteps stand out even more.

And speaking of missteps, even though the plot is a little thin, it should have an internal coherence. In other words, conflicts and dilemmas introduced in the first act help the audience to know the characters, to care about the characters, and frame the action as it progresses. However, in MM, it was like watching two acts from two different musicals which just happened to have the exact same names and locations. [SPOILER ALERT! Read no further if you don't want the musical ruined for you. This goes for those who saw it and loved it.]

Act One centers around a dilemma -- who is Sophie's dad and how will Donna, Sophie's mom, react when this comes about? The context for the dilemma is the impending wedding. Because the wedding is going to take place, and this is pretty much assumed by everyone in the action, this drives a need to know who the father of Sophie is pretty urgently. Move to Act Two, and in the first couple of scenes, Sophia and Sky (anyone out there who would like to make the Gnostic interpretation of this is free to leave it in the comments box) break off the engagement ON THE DAY OF THE WEDDING. It completely betrays the image of Sky that the first act spent 1.5 hours constructing. Then when the wedding does take place, it is Donna who gets married to an old flame whom she hated. The play because it is in a rush to conclude never gives good justification for why Donna would have anything to do with this chap. It descends further when Sophia proclaims that suddenly, she doesn't care which of the three men is her father. What? She spends the ENTIRE backstory and first act pining, hoping to know who he is, and now because she isn't getting married she dumps the need.
And this is the show's greatest weakness. It is TERRIBLY SUPERFICIAL. For instance, a priest is dragged into the second act, putatively to marry Sophia and Sky. The costumers made sure that the extras looked like they dropped off of a wayward sardine skimmer. But the priest (Catholic or Orthodox, they didn't bother with the distinction) looked like he stepped out of the pages of the Banana Republic catalog, wearing an awful brown linen suit. The most insulting part of the priest's presence is he could not do the sign of the Cross correctly. Allow me to demonstrate. Place both of your hands, palms flat, on the desk. Now raise your right hand so that it is level with your chest, keeping the palm parallel to the desk. Now turn your hand so that it is perpendicular to the desktop and draw back your arm as though you were going to do the Tomahawk chop. Next, raise your hand straight up to the level of your eyes, then straight down, bring your hand back to the starting point, and swing your hand from the left to the right (reverse for Orthodox readers). Congratulations. You just made a better sign of the Cross than that actor did. For the entire musical, religion was not mentioned except for two brief snarky passages about "good Catholic girls." If you aren't going to treat Catholic or Orthodox Christianity seriously, then just leave us out of it!

In the end, it is an adequate musical that quite frankly a moderately talented high school show choir could probably pull off. It has left me with the idea for a slam musical based on the music of the Alan Parson Project. I can see it now, my name in lights..."I want to be a producer/ and work on old Broadway..."

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