Thursday, July 24, 2008

Shtick Around

"A harmless diversion."

"Perfect entertainment for the tired businessman."

Those words used to be box office gold for Broadway producers. While there are many theatergoers who still want their musical theater experiences to be deep, pithy, and socially relevant, there is also an audience that just wants to hear some nice tunes and have themselves a good time.

Ever since it first won over London audiences in 1999, the stage version of Mamma Mia! has been delighting audiences in cities around the globe. A virtually unstoppable money machine, the show is still selling out nearly eight years after opening at New York's Winter Garden Theater (whose last tenant was Cats).

When Mamma Mia! first played San Francisco's Orpheum Theater, I was one of the few people who had a decidedly negative experience with the show. Don't get me wrong: I had great seats, was with a group of good friends, and the audience around me was having a grand old time. As expected, people were dancing in the aisles during the curtain calls. I, on the other hand, was bored and curiously distant. The story didn't grab me, the music didn't thrill me and I absolutely loathed Mark Thompson's unit set (as much as I love stage machinery, there's just so much excitement that can be milked from a turntable).

I was not a happy camper.

I had the exact opposite experience this week while watching the film version of Mamma Mia!. Even though the theater was almost empty and no one was dancing in the aisles, the world-famous jukebox musical featuring ABBA's songs had been transformed into a much more pleasant diversion.

Both the stage and film versions of Mamma Mia! were directed by the same woman, Phyllida Lloyd. So what happened? For one thing, Lloyd found a defining palette of colors for her musical in the rich hues and blues of the Mediterranean. She also had Meryl Streep to anchor the show. And therein lies a huge difference.

Although Louise Pitre was a perfectly serviceable performer as Donna in the stage production of Mamma Mia!, few actresses can match Streep's skill at playing to the camera and letting audiences know that she's having the time of her life. With old pros like Christine Baranski and Julie Walters providing backup, Streep's performance filled the screen with her usual range of boisterous enthusiasm and tender vulnerability. Moments which might have seemed forced onstage were transformed into credible shtick on the big screen. The location shots chosen for the film worked their magic in every scene. I kept looking at the shots of the ocean and thinking: Where have I seen this before? And why is it so much better this time around?"

And then the answer came to me:

The film version of South Pacific (1958) that starred Mitzi Gaynor and Rossano Brazzi made a hash of the legendary Rodgers & Hammerstein musical by trying to experiment with a variety of colored tints. Instead of embracing the natural beauty of the ocean, it completely lost the magic of life on an island in the South Pacific. The richness of the cinematography in Mamma Mia! is a direct result of the director's willingness to take advantage of rolling waves, Mediterranean seascapes, and the sheer seductiveness of a tropical evening on a Greek island.

It should be obvious to anyone with half a brain that everyone in the cast from Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, and Stellan Skarsgard (as Donna's three old flames) on down to Amanda Seyfried and Dominic Cooper (as the young lovers) is having a grand old time making this movie. Quick edits -- which did such a brilliant job of transforming stage musicals like Chicago and Hairspray into fierce, fast-moving musical engines -- have worked similar magic on Mamma Mia!

While other critics have been trying not to gag over the fact that Mamma Mia! finally made it to the giant screen, I must confess to being delighted with the results. This is one of those rare and shining instances where the transformation to the big screen actually improved a musical that had been created for the stage.

Shortly after leaving the AMC Van Ness Cinemas, I entered the Orpheum Theater on Market Street for a preview performance of The Drowsy Chaperone. This delightful confection (which began as a small party among some theater friends in Toronto), kept growing and growing until it became a full-sized Broadway musical. With music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison (and an extremely knowing and clever book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar), the show harks back to the spirit of Broadway musicals long gone -- happily reminiscing about the type of saccharine-sweet yet deliciously madcap shows that now provide theatrical fodder for New York's City Center Encores! and San Francisco's 42nd Street Moon.

Terminally silly and with a sole purpose of entertaining its audience, The Drowsy Chaperone breathes new life into a tight group of musical comedy archetypes that could be seen on stages throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Indeed, these roles could easily be labeled as Broadway's version of the stock characters populating Italy's famed commedia dell'arte: Pulcinella, Arlecchino, Scaramuccia, Il Dottore, Colombina, Il Capitan, etc.

Under director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw's loving care -- and with the perfect gimmick for showcasing this particular genre with a sense of delirious nostalgia -- The Drowsy Chaperone accomplishes its goal with precision, gusto, and the kind of inebriated giddiness that has been missing from our lives for far too long. I particularly enjoyed the performances of Jonathan Crombie as the Man in Chair, Robert Dorfman as Underling, Andrea Chamberlain as Janet, and Mark Ledbetter as Robert Martin. Cliff Bemis, Nancy Opel, and Georgia Engel take camp to new extremes, with an especially strong contribution coming from twins Paul and Peter Riopelle as the two wisecracking gangsters.

If I had to criticize one thing, it would be the severe overamplification in the Orpheum Theater which tends to severely distort the sound (particularly when the full ensemble is performing). This regrettable phenomenon was also noticeable the previous week during the pre-show music for Eddie Izzard's show.

Could it be that the sound engineers at the Orpheum need to get a referral for an audiogram? Is there a doctor in the house?

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