Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Brides Behaving Badly

Plenty of films involve the preparations for and hysterics surrounding a wedding. Julia Roberts starred in 1997's My Best Friend's Wedding and 1999's Runaway Bride. Other favorites include:
As weddings became more costly, contentious, and elaborate, the term "Bridezilla" entered the vernacular. In 2004, WE tv launched a popular reality show called Bridezillas. Unfortunately, there has been a long and very public history -- from Britney Spears to Kim Kardashian -- of desperate and dysfunctional brides.

Broadway musicals have created some wonderful numbers about brides behaving badly. Consider Marie's cry of desperation from 1959's Fiorello!  In the following video clip, Katie Karel sings "The Very Next Man"

In 1964, Barbra Streisand had audiences rolling with laughter in the aisles of the Winter Garden Theatre after a scene in which Fanny Brice begged Florenz Ziegfeld not to make her sing some ridiculous lyrics extolling her personal beauty. Here's a clip of the "His Love Makes Me Beautiful" sequence from the 1969 film adaptation of Funny Girl.

In 1966, when the Music Theatre of Lincoln Center revived 1946's Annie Get Your Gun, Irving Berlin wrote a new Act II duet for Ethel Merman and Bruce Yarnell which stopped the show cold at every performance. In the following clip, Peter Gallagher and Patti LuPone perform "An Old Fashioned Wedding" on Rosie O'Donnell's talk show.

Of course, one of the best examples of a bride behaving badly was captured by Stephen Sondheim in his 1970 musical, Company. Here's Madeline Kahn freaking out about "Getting Married Today" during 1992's Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall.

Many brides fantasize about being married on a beach or at a romantic tourist destination. In the wedding tradition of having "something old, something new" I recently spent time enjoying the wedding stories based on two tropical brides of paradise.

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In April 1999, Mamma Mia! had its world premiere in London (where it is still playing). A Canadian production premiered in Toronto in May of 2000 before moving on to Chicago. Later that year, en route to Broadway, the American production premiered at San Francisco's Orpheum Theatre for a limited run before heading to Los Angeles, Boston, and finally settling down at New York's Winter Garden Theatre where it will soon celebrate its 4,300th performance.

Since its world premiere, stage productions of Mamma Mia! have grossed more than $2 billion and entertained more than 42 million theatregoers. In July of 2008, a film adaptation starring Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Christine Baranski, Julie Walters, and Amanda Seyfried gave the Mamma Mia! franchise a whole new lease on life.

As everyone now knows, the show is a jukebox musical created to showcase the songs made famous by the Swedish pop group, ABBA. Audiences around the world have been encouraged to dance in the aisles during the curtain calls. Nearly 12 years after its world premiere, Mamma Mia! continues to be a crowd pleaser wherever it is performed.

Pepper (Ethan Le Phong) has the hots for Tanya (Alison Ewing) in
Mamma Mia! (Photo by: Joan Marcus)

Truth be told, when I first saw the show in 2000, I loathed it. That's mostly because, during the years when ABBA was at the height of its popularity I was living without a television and had only been listening to classical music and show tunes. Although I might have heard ABBA's songs in airports, bathhouses, bars, gyms, and on radios, I wasn't spending any time at a disco.

However, the announcement that a plot had been concocted which would serve as a vehicle for many of ABBA's popular songs caught my interest. Catherine Johnson's book placed the action on a Greek island where a young bride named Sophie (who had been raised by a single mother) decided to take a risky move. Having gotten her hands on her mother's diary, she'd invited the three most likely men who might be her father to take part in her wedding, hoping that when they arrived she'd discover the identity of her biological father.

When I first experienced Mamma Mia! Johnson's script seemed so lame that it was almost embarrassing. I was equally disappointed by the cheapness of the show's sets.

Twelve years later, I had a chance to revisit Mamma Mia! during a touring production's recent stop at the Orpheum Theatre. Much to my surprise, I had a perfectly delightful time.

Why? During the intervening years, more jukebox musicals (Jersey Boys, Movin' OutFela!The Boy From Oz, and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert -- The Musical) have entertained audiences. And, in all honesty, I thoroughly enjoyed the 2008 movie starring Meryl Streep.

Watching the show through an older set of eyes reveals its strengths as both a bona fide cash cow and a solid piece of pop entertainment. With its skeletal sets and only seven musicians in the band, Mamma Mia! functions very nicely as a lean, mean, money machine.

Unlike traditional Broadway musicals whose initial success had been closely linked to their stars (Ethel Merman in Gypsy, Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly!,  Barbra Streisand in Funny GirlAngela Lansbury in Mame), Mamma Mia! doesn't require a star to sell tickets at the box office. As a result, the payroll can be kept under reasonable control.

The show rests on the shoulders of Donna (Kaye Tuckerman) and her former backup singers in Donna and the Dynamos: Tanya (Alison Ewing) and Rosie (Mary Callanan). While Chloe Tucker (Sophie), Happy Mahaney (Sky), and Ethan Le Phong (Pepper) did a nice job of representing the younger generation, Sophie's three potential fathers were ably portrayed by Paul Deboy (Harry Bright), John-Michael Zeurlein (Bill Austin), and Christian Whelan (Sam Carmichael).

Kaye Tuckerman stars as Donna in Mamma Mia!
(Photo by: Joan Marcus)

I was especially impressed by Kaye Tuckerman, a wiry Australian actress with a big voice who gave an  intensely heartfelt performance as Donna.  Although there were times when the sound levels were jacked up unnecessarily high, this time around Mamma Mia! surprised and charmed me. Here's the trailer:

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Moving from one tropical paradise to another, Knots begins at an outdoor Hawaiian dinner designed for the tourist trade. The dinner show has just reaped the entertainment benefit of a handsome haole from Los Angeles who volunteered to don a grass skirt and learn how to dance the hula. Having given serious thought to this opportunity in advance, James (Henry Dittman) moves over to the table where his girlfriend Lily Kim (Kimberly-Rose Wolter) is seated, takes a jewelry box out of his pocket, drops to his knee, and asks her to marry him.

James Dittman tries his hand at the hula in Knots

Without missing a beat, Lily leans forward and vomits all over him. Needless to say, they leave Maui on separate planes, with James headed back to Los Angeles and Lily island hopping to visit her family on Oahu.

Not that Lily's family is much help. Her mother, Miriam (Illeana Douglas), has taken her experience of being married three times to build a wedding planning business with Lily's half sisters, Hoku (Janel Parrish) and Twinny (Mia Riverton).

Illeana Douglas is a wedding planner in Knots

Because Lily moved to the mainland and has shown absolutely no interest in getting married and having children, she is deeply resented by the always pregnant Twinny, whose husband, Roy (Chris Taloa), has been mysteriously "working late" on far too many evenings. To make matters even worse, Lily discovers that her ex-boyfriend Kai (Sung Kang) has started dating Hoku, who is super eager to hear him propose.

Kimberly-Rose Wolter (Lily) and Sung Kang (Kai) in Knots

In his director's statement, Michael Kang writes:
"The Hawaii you see in the film isn't the postcard version with tiki torches and umbrella drinks. It's the world in which Hawaiians actually exist. In that way, Hawaii became a character in itself in the film. Hawaii's voice is not overbearing or authoritative, it's rich and full of hope. Hawaii is wise but not verbose. Hawaii is the parent I think we all wish we had. Unlike the difficulties these women have with men in the real world, Hawaii is the perfect partner for them (both nurturing and trusting that they will all find their way). 
The film embraces both its Hawaiian-ness and its universality. By being very culturally specific it, in fact, becomes more universal. The film is not dark and gritty enough to be a film festival darling. But on the converse, we still shot this film on a shoestring indie-sized budget (in fact the lowest budget I've had to work with to date, which is only a testament to the great aloha spirit of the cast and crew for pulling off such an ambitious and beautiful film)."

Poster art for Knots

Written by Kimberly-Rose Wolter (who co-stars as Lily), Knots is an amiable and accessible, if decidedly unromantic film. It benefits immensely from the cinematography of Shawn Hiatt (especially in scenes shot inside the Waikiki Aquarium). The constant "cute" substitutes for standard expletives makes one wonder if the screenwriter and/or her wedding planners are Mormons. Here's the trailer:

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