Review: Mamma Mia!

The cast of Mamma Mia!                                                                                      Photo by KO Rinearson

By Larry Laneer
July 25, 2018

Mamma Mia! wasn’t the first jukebox musical, and it may not be the worst one, but it is the show often cited as giving the genre a bad name. And to the show’s legions of admirers that matters not a whit.

Two or three touring productions of Mamma Mia! have played here, but Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma’s sharp-looking production, now at the Thelma Gaylord, is the first by a city theater company of this dramatically and comedically jejune musical.

The show’s score was selected—as if punching up records on a jukebox—from the catalog of the Swedish pop band ABBA, which flourished in the late 1970s. The rickety scaffolding on which the songs are hung concerns Donna who runs a struggling taverna on a small Greek island. Her 20-year-old daughter, Sophie, is getting married, but her father won’t be walking her down the aisle because she doesn’t know who he is. Sophie reads her mother’s diary and identifies three paternal prospects from 20 years ago. She invites them to the wedding hoping to figure out which one is dear old dad. Surprisingly, their mailing addresses are still good after 20 years (the show is set in 1999). All three show up with no idea of what Sophie is doing. Let’s just say complications and misunderstandings ensue.

Thus, the creators (Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, music/lyrics; Catherine Johnson, book) have to force songs that weren’t written specifically for this musical into the flimsy story line. Some of the tunes will be familiar to anyone who frequented discos or had a radio tuned to a Top 40 station about four decades ago: “I Have a Dream,” “Chiquitita,” Dancing Queen,” and the title song.

So, has director and choreographer Lyn Cramer found new insights or hidden gems in this musical? No, but she’s working with inferior material. That’s not to say Cramer hasn’t done a top-notch job with the show. She has staged almost two dozen musical numbers and maneuvered a cast of 27 to their marks. Theatergoers will appreciate the all-male chorus line in wet suits and flippers.

Lyric and Cramer are putting on a big production here. Even the polka dots that adorn Kimberly Powers’s scenic design are huge. Jeffrey Meek produced a burst of color with his costumes two weeks ago for Hello, Dolly! Mamma makes Dolly look downright drab. Vibrant colors abound in the scenery and costumes, brilliantly lit by Helena Kuukka. And get those eight—eight!—reflective disco balls hanging above the stage like planets in a solar system.

The performances are fine, but the cast is saddled with doing pop ditties from the 1970s and subpar dialog. Meredith Inglesby plays Donna with Jessica Martens as Sophie. Donna and two chums had a pop band in their youth, which oddly resembles ABBA, and her musical mates come for the wedding. Barb Schoenhofer gives a cheeky performance as one, and the great, magenta-haired Renee Anderson plays the other. Steve Blanchard, Gregory DeCandia, and Tommy Glenn are the dads in question. The ensemble does an impressive job with the choral singing and acrobatic choreography.

I once asked a friend who is a big fan of this musical why he admires it so much. He said “I just like smiling for two hours.” It’s a short distance from a smile to a grimace. Lovers of the show will revel in Lyric’s production. Loathers will not be changed by it.

Mamma Mia! by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus (music/lyrics) and Catherine Johnson (book)
Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma
7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8:00 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2:00 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, through July 29
Thelma Gaylord Performing Arts Theatre, Civic Center Music Hall
201 N. Walker Ave.

Review: Hello, Dolly!

The cast of Hello, Dolly!                                                                                              Photo by KO Rinearson

By Larry Laneer
July 11, 2018

Attention fans of mid-twentieth-century book musicals (count me among them). If you haven’t heard, Hello, Dolly! is back in town in a limp production that looks like an opportunity missed.

With music and lyrics by the legendary Jerry Herman and book by Michael Stewart, the show is most associated with Carol Channing, who starred in the original Broadway production and played Dolly in Oklahoma City in a mid-1960s national tour. In fact, Channing performed in the same room where the show is running now. Recognizing this musical is worthy of regular revival, Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma is putting it on at the Thelma Gaylord, directed by Ashley Wells.

It’s not that the production doesn’t try. Take Jeffrey Meek’s sumptuous costume design, for example. In the opening scenes, the period costumes are in muted earth tones. Then “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” comes on, and the stage bursts with colors: oranges, purples, yellows, ochres, blues, hot pink. The costumes stay vivid for the rest of the show. Dolly’s red dress in the title number draws entrance applause. The detail in the white dress she wears in the finale is visible all the way to the back of the lower orchestra. The costumes include matching hats and even shoes in matching hues.

Matthew Sipress’s period-faithful choreography would not look out of place in the original 1964 production. The huge cast of 34 looks sharp and has fine ensemble in the dancing. No one simply walks across the stage. They march, tiptoe, hop, bounce, float, glide, sashay, polka, and waltz. And that’s not the complete list.

Dee Hoty, a bona fide musical theater star, plays the title role as a thoroughly modern Dolly. She has not an iota of vulnerability or self-doubt. Thus, Dolly is not a particularly sympathetic figure. She’s frustrated with her situation and schemes to marry Yonkers merchant Horace Vandergelder strictly for his money (he’s “half a millionaire”). Hoty is an accomplished actor and is in fine voice in this show. And she’s not above low humor, such as the long, drawn-out face-stuffing scene in the Harmonia Gardens restaurant.

Although he gives the usual fine performance, not even Matthew Alvin Brown can lift the production much. In his long career, Brown has played both leading and featured roles as if they’re the most important thing in the world. Here he is in comedic mode as Cornelius Hackl, Vandergelder’s chief clerk. His “It Only Takes a Moment” is the sweetest moment in the show.

And then you have the 22-musician orchestra under the baton of David Andrews Rogers. Hear the full sections of strings, brass, and reeds!  The choruses are well sung by the ensemble. On opening night, the amplification sounded muddy at first but was corrected later, or we just got used to it.

George Dvorsky is fine as Vandergelder. He gets one of the great showtunes, “It Takes a Woman.” Kristy Cates does a good job as milliner Irene Molloy.

But it’s hard to find characters to really like in this production. The bumblers Cornelius and his co-clerk, Barnaby (Gordie Beingessner), are affable enough. Mrs. Molloy has a down-to-earth genuineness. But they are minor characters. Vandergelder is written to be irascible and close with money. Dolly is opportunistic but without the charm that would make her appealing. Who are we supposed to connect with emotionally?

Lyric reduced the number of shows it does in the summer to three from four. They promised, however, to do more elaborate productions at the Thelma Gaylord. Based on the evidence of two shows, I can confirm the productions are more detailed, fully staged with artistic three-dimensional sets, creative lighting, and fully realized props.

Hello, Dolly! remains one of the great mid-twentieth-century musicals. The Lyric production isn’t completely unsatisfying. But the show probably won’t have you marching, floating, polkaing, or waltzing out of the theater.

Hello, Dolly! by Jerry Herman (music/lyrics) and Michael Stewart (book)
Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma
7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8:00 p.m. Friday, 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Saturday,
2:00 p.m. Sunday, through July 15
Thelma Gaylord Performing Arts Theatre
201 N. Walker Ave.

Review: The Revolutionists

Amanda Lee in The Revolutionists  Photo by April Porterfield

By Larry Laneer
July 8, 2018

The playwright Lauren Gunderson subtitles her play The Revolutionists as A Comedy, A Quartet, A Revolutionary Dream Fugue, A True Story.  It turns out the play is a true story in a way. The question is whose story?

According to American Theatre magazine, Gunderson is the most produced playwright (not named Shakespeare) during the 2017-2018 season. Small casts and easily adaptable settings have something to do with that, but Gunderson is an able writer who can turn a clever phrase and coin a quip.

Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park is presenting The Revolutionists at its Paseo space under the sure hand of director Tyler Woods. This is by no means a great play, although it is worthy of staging. But OSP provides first-class performances by four actresses in a sharp-looking and well-conceived production.

The play takes place in 1793 Paris during the French Revolution, although Gunderson’s language and syntax are completely 2018. Three characters were real people, and the other is Gunderson’s creation. The real playwright Olympe de Gouges struggles to write a play. It’s the French Revolution, for goodness sake! She must write something important! The real playwright Charlotte Corday stops by on her way to assassinating Jean-Paul Marat to get a good line from de Gouges, which she can use just before being guillotined when they ask if the condemned has any last words. (Corday did kill Marat in his bath, as depicted by painter Jacques Louis David in The Death of Marat. The assassination is also in an influential 1964 play by Peter Weiss, the long title of which is usually shortened to Marat/Sade.) We also see Marianne Angelle (created by the Gunderson), a Haitian who has come to Paris to join the revolution. Before long, Marie-Antoinette (yes, that Marie-Antoinette) shows up.

Without outstanding performances by the cast, this play wouldn’t amount to much. As Marie-Antoinette, Amanda Lee almost makes off with the show in a case of grand larceny. Her Marie swings from total ditz to screech owl. She’s Trumpian in her unusual hair color and obsession with being liked. But Lee reveals the character’s greater depth in the second act. As written by Gunderson and performed by Lee, it’s an exercise in creating sympathy for a tyrant (or queen in a tyrannical regime).

Erin Woods (wonderful to see her on stage again) plays Olympe de Gouges, a writer who struggles with being relevant in turbulent times.  That Woods gives a solid performance comes as no surprise to theatergoers.

As the Haitian Marianne, Alexis Ward nails the character as the voice of reason among the self-possessed and discombobulated around her. Madison Hill knocks it out as Corday, a revolutionary who sacrifices her art for a higher political cause.

For the past several seasons, OSP has been known for outstanding costume design by Robert Pittenridge, who died last year. In this production, Elisa Bierschenk achieves the Pittenridge standard and raises questions. It’s hard to take your eyes off that red hat Erin Woods wears. But why does Hill wear nine wristwatches?

The play takes place mainly in de Gouges’s slightly seedy quarters (designed by Richard Carl Johns). Red painted wallpaper with gold fleurs-de-lis and red cloth dominate.

The director Woods employs music and sound to fine effect. In addition to playing Corday, Hill plays cello on recorded music that serves as an ostinato to the first act but pretty much disappears in the second act. Songs in the second act raise the emotional level of the play. To say more here would reveal too much.

To me the true story of Gunderson’s subtitle refers to her own story. In the first act, the characters say that a play about writing a play is the worst kind of play, which is the playwright preempting criticism. While the acting, staging, and design in this production make for an entertaining evening of theater, the play does not give the audience a particularly compelling story. Yes, playwrights and other creative souls may risk making the ultimate sacrifice for their art. But the same could be said of many other professions and endeavors.

The Revolutionists by Lauren Gunderson
Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park
8:00 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, through July 21
2:00 p.m. Sunday, July 15
Shakespeare on Paseo
2920 Paseo