Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2011

Mama Mia--Disparate Elements From A Distance

Synching-up the Drama and Music of A Very Successful Stage Show

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Composers Benny Anersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus rest somewhere on the edge of my awareness. ABBA music was likely some of the first I’d ever heard feeding through pop radio as a 5 and 6 year-old in ’80 and ’81. Sitting down to watch Mama Mia! at the Marcus Center last night, the 1980 five-year-old in me felt very much like it was living in the future. An orchestra-like version of that distinct Andersson/Ulvaeus synth-pop music rolled through a reasonably-packed opening night auditorium. It almost felt kind of classy in a retro-futuristic way. And then the show started.

THE MUSICAL

Longtime collaborators Andersson and Ulvaeus were not enthusiastic, but not entirely opposed to the idea of turning using a whole bunch of ABBA songs as the foundation for a stage musical. And though their names rest above the title in that iconic logo, the show is really more a product of a couple of other people—producer Judy Craymer and playwright Catherine Johnson.

Though there’s no questioning that Mamma Mia! is more than simply a bunch of ABBA songs fused into a musical theatre piece, it lacks the kind of depth that inspired all those songs. There is a solid, character-driven story with heart at the center of Mama Mia!, but its light and simple. In and of itself, this isn’t really a problem, but over a decade before the musical debuted, Andersson and Ulvaeus collaborated on the concept album and stage musical Chess—a socio-political story with considerably more depth, complexity. Chess had the inner machinery of the music closely tied to the heart of a very complex story. By contrast, Mama Mia! feels very much like a series of old songs cut and pasted into an admittedly sweet story. It’s okay, but not brilliant. Through no fault of my own, I sat watching Mama Mia! longing for Chess, which is a bit of an odd place to be.

THE PRODUCTION

Set in Greece, Mama Mia! is the story of a young woman about to get married who has invited three men to her wedding—al of whom might be her father. Her mother, who wasn’t informed of the invitations, is a bit surprised when they show-up. The rest more or less goes the way one might expect.

The production design maximizes the open space on the stage to render the feeling of Greece with light and curtains. At its best, it’s a very sweeping feeling, but for all its open space this is still Broadway in a box and all of the physical elements onstage feel very flat. A series of curtains give the illusion of depth. Vertical lines along the sides meet horizontal lines in the back. The open space is at its best in a dream sequence after intermission in which a bed rests in a see of fog with lighting that makes the whole scene feel very much like an ’80’s music video. Kind of cool seeing that onstage.

Set and costuming feel very minimal in a production that must be exceedingly inexpensive in comparison to more physically elaborate touring productions. The big, sweeping feel of the musical manifests itself in wide open spaces and really impressively arrayed lighting, but it’s a bit strange to know that part of the appeal of a musical people are paying a great real of money to see rests in empty space and designer photons.

THE PERFORMANCE

So much of what people go to see with a big-budget touring musical is the production itself. In the huge kind of spaces the shows make it to, elaborate costuming and sets. Without as much of that in Mama Mia!, it’s easier to focus-in on the performance of the cast. Kaye Tuckerman is charming enough as the fiercely independent Donna Sheridan who finds her control over her life challenged as her daughter Sophie is getting married. Chloe Tucker has enough charm to hold down the emotional center of the film as a girl looking to find her father. Most of the people in the cast render characters that are likeable and vaguely witty.

A musical that is character-driven—one without many glossy production tends to suffer the limitations of the format. Intimate human emotions play out in subtle shades on faces. Faces aren’t terribly visible from the kind of distance 98% of the audience is seeing the show from. As a result, emotions are forced to play out in artificially amplified audio and gross anatomical movement. A good deal of the emotion feels very much like an amplified mime. It’s kind of a strange audio play as an audience bridges the gap between what’s going on visually and what’s going on in the  audio. In this respect, Mama Mia! is a montage of different elements. People seen from a distance, their voices far closer than they are as synth-music fills a large auditorium telling a romantic story that has been hammered around some two dozen early ‘80’s pop tunes. It’s a kind of live performance, but it’s not exactly the most satisfying theatrical experience. 

 

The North American Touring Production of Mama Mia! continues at the Marcus Center through January 9th.

 

 

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