By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Mamma Mia!, defying critical drubbings for half a decade, has been called a Twinkie of a musical. But that's an insult to spongy Hostess snack cakes that have stood the test of time. Think of it as more of a theatrical baklava: layers of tissue-thin story line piled one atop the other and stuck together with the syrupy goo of disco-era ABBA tunes. Twinkies and better musicals than this will outlast us all. Phyllo dough and Mamma Mia! have much shorter shelf lives.
Like a chick-lit novel set to music, Mamma Mia! plants its big wet smooches on true love (however late it arrives) and mother-daughter bonding. The main plot has 20-year-old bride-to-be Sophie Sheridan (Carrie Manolakos) and her hippie mother, Donna (Laurie Wells), welcoming an assortment of wedding guests to their small Greek island inn. In her youth, Donna was part of a three-girl singing group who dressed like the drag queens of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (a witty movie that exercised better restraint with ABBA's muscular beats). The trio reunites for virgin Sophie's wedding to her nebbish fiancé, Sky (Corey Greenan).
The nuptials and the girl-group get-together have frowzy Donna in a tizzy. But further complications ensue after Sophie snoops in her mother's old diaries in hopes of figuring out the identity of her biological dad. She invites three candidates (Sean Allan Krill, Ian Simpson, Milo Shandel) to the wedding, each unaware that he was a potential sperm donor two decades earlier.
All About Bette: An Evening with Bette Davis continues through July 16 at Theatre Three, 214-871-3300.
As chick-lit formulas go, there are also many squishy subplots to deal with. Donna's former singing partners (Lisa Mandel, Laura Ware) try to get their old friend out of her funk by squeezing back into their old metallic jumpsuits and platform boots for some close-harmonizing. These scenes provide the show's best moments, with Mandel and Ware serving as welcome comic relief from the otherwise maudlin story points. They mug wildly as ABBA-belting versions of the same brand of aging tarts Joanna Lumley and Jennifer Saunders played on Absolutely Fabulous.
The Ab/Fab comparisons even extend to Sophie, who's a Saffy-like square who doesn't quite get her mother's history as a free-love advocate. (Naturally, it's the squarest of the three men who turns out to be her father.)
Heavy on the heart tugs and hokum, Mamma Mia! also features some truly gag-inducing sequences, including a glow-in-the-dark dance number with boys wearing purple wetsuits. And don't get in a hurry to leave after the booming final number. It's only a teaser for the triple-layer encore. These dancing queens keep coming back whether we want them to or not.
All this does not mean Mamma Mia! is a terrible two and a half hours of entertainment. No, despite the corny jokes, overdone emotions, silly choreography and ghastly vintage hits by the Swedish pop group, it's nearly impossible not to fall for the attractive cast (great voices all around, especially Laurie Wells in the lead as Donna) and not to bob the head along with the insistently chirpy score.
It's a pretty show to look at and to listen to. The scenic design by Mark Thompson--all Aegean blues to depict a sun-washed Greek isle--pleases the eyes. The orchestra bathes the ears in highly amplified synthesized chords. Every moment is as slickly manufactured as a cellophane-wrapped cupcake.
But there's more to making artful musical theater than creating a sweetsy-poo story (as writer Catherine Johnson has done here) and force-feeding it a bunch of goopy pop anthems. In great shows going back to Oklahoma! and on up to A Chorus Line and Rent, the songs serve to further the plot elements. In Mamma Mia! they stop the show and not in a good way. It's hard to superimpose incomprehensible disco drivel such as "S.O.S." and "Chiquitita" onto any plausible situation. And face it, ABBA's composers Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus wrote songs whose lyrics bear only a passing acquaintanceship with the English language. Sample from the little ditty "Super Trouper," which is included in Mamma Mia!:
Super trouper lights are gonna find me
Shining like the sun
Smiling, having fun
Feeling like a number one.
Rodgers and Hammerstein, you may keep resting comfortably.
This one-woman tribute to the legendary star begs for some bumps, some jolts, some of the highs and lows of a well-written play. As it is, All About Bette, directed by Jac Alder, feels like a half-rehearsed, amateurish work-in-progress. It's an hour too long, and playwright Camilla Carr's script is little more than an artless, shapeless clip job that has Bette pacing around pedantically listing every award she ever won and chronologically running through her filmography with all the flair of someone reading her résumé aloud.
When we first see Bette, it's the one we'd like to forget: in her 80s, face ravaged by a stroke but still puffing away on her cigs. It's the Bette that Martin Short does such a creepily accurate impersonation of.
Gradually, the decrepit Bette gives way to the younger, more glamorous one. Shaw, draped in a gorgeous bronze-hued satin dress by costumer Patty Greer McGarity that's similar to the star's party frock in All About Eve, starts to click into the role. When she cocks her head just so and darts her eyes around, Shaw does look a bit like her. But she smiles too much and uses that staccato "Ha!" 20 times too often. And a Southern drawl sounds fine in the snippets of Jezebel but otherwise betrays Shaw's inability to perfect Bette's clipped Yankee speech patterns.
Most of the gossipy anecdotes shared in All About Bette are all too familiar to dedicated Turner Classics watchers. She dishes on her longtime nemesis Joan Crawford (her co-star in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?), saying, "The only male star she didn't sleep with was Lassie...and I have no proof of that." And she lashes out at daughter B.D., who wrote a nasty Mommie Dearest-like tell-all. There are lots of stories about Bette's pushy mother and about her many husbands, all of whom failed her in some important aspect.
Only two fresh tidbits emerge and those are saved until late in the second act. Seems part-time lover Howard Hughes had bedroom problems that Bette helped him overcome (to use aviator terms, he could take off fine but landed too soon). And she brewed up a bitter rivalry with Tallulah Bankhead over who would play the lead in the screen version of The Little Foxes (Bette won). Bankhead, says Bette, claimed to have only two interests in life. One was old money. The other gets the biggest, dirtiest laugh in the show.
Sprinkled with obscure references to Old Hollywood figures such as Slim Summerville (character actor) and Orry-Kelly (costume designer), All About Betteprobably plays best to an older crowd (which Theatre Three caters to anyway). It's a pleasant enough trip down trivia lane, but with more creative direction and some reworking of the script, it could be better. Every great star, after all, benefits from skilled direction and judicious editing.