Prior to this past weekend, there was only one Broadway theater that I had never been in. My 30-plus years of attending shows in New York City had brought me to the interior of every single one of the currently active theaters on Broadway, from the Ambassador (Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk) to the August Wilson (Jersey Boys, Flower Drum Song, Jelly's Last Jam, City of Angels).
Except for one: the Winter Garden.
Why? Well, for nearly 20 years, the Winter Garden was the home of Cats, and since 2001, it has housed Mamma Mia!. Now, I'm not necessarily knocking either of those shows. (Yet.) It's just that I saw both of them on tour in Boston, and didn't really feel the need to see them again in New York. So, for quite a while now, I've been itching to scratch the Winter Garden off my list. However, Mamma Mia has stubbornly remained open, and has to date shown no signs of closing to make way for another show.
This past weekend, I was headed down to New York to see the Encores production of Fanny at City Center. (Watch for my review later in the week. In short, a delight.) I didn't have anything to see on Saturday afternoon, so I sidled over to TKTS to see what was up. Quite a bit, it turns out, but I had seen all the musicals in town, in most cases twice. And none of the spring crop of musicals begins previews until later this month or beyond. So, as I stared up at the show listings, Mamma Mia caught my eye. My heart sort of sank, but I bit the bullet and got myself a ticket.
Now, reader, before you judge me, let me impress upon you the importance of this milestone. The Winter Garden has been the storied home of numerous iconic shows, including Funny Girl, Mame, Follies, West Side Story, Pacific Overtures, Wonderful Town, and the 1974 Angela Lansbury revival of Gypsy. It also housed a number of versions of the Ziegfeld Follies (after the Shuberts acquired the rights to the name following Ziegfeld's death), featuring such fabled performers such as Fanny Brice, Bob Hope, Gypsy Rose Lee, and Josephine Baker. Al Jolson performed numerous sell-out shows there between 1911 and 1928, during which he would have a runway built going out into the audience, the better to channel his black-faced histrionics. So, this is no ordinary Broadway theater. This is history. How could I call myself a theater historian and not have seen the inside of one of the most important theaters of all time?
Of course, reaching this milestone meant that I had to sit through Mamma Mia again. I saw the show about 8 years ago, and I remember being somewhat entertained. I've always secretly sort of liked the songs of ABBA. And there's no way the show could be as bad as the movie was, right? I mean, how bad could it be?
Bad. Really really bad.
I'm genuinely at a loss to explain why Mamma Mia is still running but All Shook Up and Good Vibrations and other shows in the jukebox musical genre have long since closed. I didn't get a chance to see either of those other shows, but were they really that much worse than Mamma Mia? Or is there some strange power that the music of ABBA has over the ticket-buying public? They're certainly not going based on the strength of the story, the dance, or the production values.
Granted the show features Phyllida Lloyd's efficient staging and some rather smooth transitions. But the choreography, provided by one Anthony Van Laast, is laughably amateurish, featuring pointlessly intricate footwork with no sense of flow or stage perspective. Were I a dancer in this show, I would be mortified to execute such feeble steps. Catherine Johnson's paper-thin book features cardboard characters and such borderline offensive remarks as "How'd you like to pepper my snapper?"
At this performance, very few of the hoary jokes were hitting, except the ones (and there are many) that involve characters touching their own or someone else's boobs or buns. I figured that this must be a language issue; as was true with Cats, the ticket buyers who seem to be keeping Mamma Mia running are the foreign tourists.
An interesting byproduct of this language issue was that the actors seemed to be responding to the lack of audience response by overacting, perhaps in some futile effort to make the lame humor work. Particularly egregious in this respect was Alyse Alan Louis as Sophie, who was overly emotive, breathless, and demonstrative. Yeah, this girl is getting married, but does that mean her every line and gesture need to evoke the highest of stakes?
Another unfortunate casualty to the overacting factor was the otherwise talented John Dossett as Sam Carmichael. In his long career, Dossett has proven himself a fine actor, but here he's rather painfully excessive, at least while he's singing. Perhaps this is because he's saddled with songs that are slightly above his vocal range, but he compensates with exaggerated facial tics and contortions. During the song "S.O.S.," every time he had to mouth the title initials, he would chew the air as if roaring like a lion, as though it were part of a failed Bert Lahr impersonation.
Thankfully, the production featured some more modulated performances, particularly that of the delightful Beth Leavel as Donna Sheridan. At first Leavel seemed miscast in the role, coming off as a bit too small in countenance, but eventually she warmed up and became positively fierce in act 2. "The Winner Takes it All" was one of the few genuine pleasures of the production. For the most part, there was refreshingly little of her Tony-Award winning role in The Drowsy Chaperone in evidence, although she did punctuate the very end of "Winner" with a few moves that were very Drowsy indeed. It worked for me.So, yeah, Mamma Mia has its debatable charms, but I'm not sure I'll ever fully comprehend why the show has become such an international sensation. All I know is that I genuinely hope it doesn't close anytime soon: if it does, then I will have sat through the show needlessly, simply in order to reach my personal milestone. That would kinda suck.