The Winner Takes It All: Thoughts on Mamma Mia! – September 12, 2015

While the trend to create a musical based around the song catalog of a singer or band is not a new one, there have been a lot of such musicals in recent years – some have had short runs (Good Vibrations) while others continue to thrill audiences (Jersey Boys). Among the first of the long runners was Mamma Mia!, which ended its Broadway run last night after almost 14 years and 5,773 performances, making it the 8th longest running Broadway show. The show weaves its tale of a young girl’s yearning to find her father and the drama (and hilarity) that ensues when the three possible candidates arrive on her wedding day around the songs of ABBA, with great success. While there have been critics (professional and otherwise) who have bemoaned the saccharine aspects of the show and that it’s not a “real” musical, the fact that it’s a happy, poppy show is not necessarily a bad thing. There’s room for purely entertaining musicals and the more serious “real” musicals, and Mamma Mia! opened on Broadway at a time when New Yorkers needed something uplifting and purely entertaining to help them though those dark days.

Mamma Mia winter garden

While I’ve never really been much of an ABBA fan, I knew most of the songs, and first encountered the show (I think) via the performances the show gave at the Broadway on Broadway concert and the Broadway in Bryant Park concert series. I’ve seen the show several times before the final matinee performance and have always enjoyed it, especially the “Megamix” encore at the end (after the curtain call) where the leads appear in colorful ‘70s outfits singing “Mamma Mia”, “Dancing Queen” and “Waterloo” – there’s always a party atmosphere, with the audience singing, clapping and dancing along with the cast. I always leave the theatre (whether it was at the Winter Garden, where the production began its run, or at the Broadhurst where the production ended its run) with a smile, and the ABBA score playing in my head. I obtained my ticket the day before more as a precaution as I wanted to be guaranteed a seat for that performance, as I tend to not buy tickets in advance in case I can obtain a ticket at the TKTS booth, which sells same day tickets at a discounted price. I got to the theatre well before the 1PM curtain (the final performance was at 6:30PM) and hung around the stage door area, taking photos and chatting with fellow theatergoers (also helped convince a father, with his two daughters, decide whether or not to get standing room seats – they ended up getting them).

Mamma Mia Broadhurst

Mamma Mia final cast list

As it was the final matinee, it was a full house and a lively audience, cheering throughout, sometimes clapping along with the songs. The cast was outstanding, singing and dancing with great enthusiasm, with brief moments of wistfulness. I will admit I started to tear up a bit during the song “Slipping Through My Fingers” and I noticed other audience members wiping their eyes as well. The stage door experience was fantastic as always, crowded as expected for the final matinee – the principal cast came out to sign playbills, to chat with fans and take photos with those at the stage door, though the surge of fans at the stage door prevented me from getting photos with the cast, as the metal barricades were situated a bit too close to the stage door, creating a bit of a bottleneck, coupled with fans further back from the front of the metal barricades pushing forward with their playbills. Nevertheless, the cast signed all the playbills presented to them, chatting with those at the stage door before returning inside the theatre (after all, they had their final show to prepare for). Kudos to Judy McLane, who ended her tenure at Mamma Mia! as Donna (she started with the show playing Tanya), who remained outside the stage door signing playbills, souvenir  programs and posing for photos for those lingering outside.

Top row: Allison Ewing, Judy McLane & Mary Callanan Middle row: Jon Jorgenson, Elena Ricardo & Neil Starkenberg Bottom row: Paul DeBoy, Victor Wallace & John Hemphill

Top row: Allison Ewing, Judy McLane & Mary Callanan
Middle row: Jon Jorgenson, Elena Ricardo & Neil Starkenberg
Bottom row: Paul DeBoy, Victor Wallace & John Hemphill

Needless to say, I’ve always had a great time at Mamma Mia! and wish I went to see the show more times before it closed (I only saw the show 6 times during its almost 14 year run). I will miss the exuberance and the positive vibes the show exuded, but at least I have the original London cast recording (I wish they had recorded one with the Broadway cast). And then there’s the movie adaptation, which captured most of the energy the stage production had. I’m sure it’s evident through these blog posts that I’m quasi-critical about Hollywood adaptations of stage musicals, especially with regards to how they’re cast, though whatever reservations I have about the movie adaptation, the end credits, which included the Megamix encore makes up for its shortcomings.

So, to the entire cast, crew and creative team of Mamma Mia! throughout its run, I say, “Thank You For the Music, for giving it to me” (and countless theatergoers).

Mamma Mia signed playbill

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The Thrill of the Fight: Musings on Rocky – April 12, 2014

Even an underdog has its day.

When I heard that Rocky was being made into a musical, I will admit I was skeptical at the prospect – yet another movie franchise to be adapted to the stage in order to bring in a wider audience, one who would not normally attend a Broadway musical [namely straight men, who stereotypically are the ones dragged to such events by their wives/girlfriends or perhaps by other women in their lives]; a sign of how Hollywood is “invading” Broadway, as the trend of movies being adapted into musicals continues. While the film was great (its many sequels, however, were not as good, in my opinion), I wasn’t sure how well it would translate as a musical, the titular character not known for being loquacious, and while there have been plays about boxing and boxers, a singing boxer didn’t sound appealing to me, but then again, I’m not exactly the target audience for a show of this kind.

Rocky marquee

While hanging out with some friends (and ardent theatergoers) we decided on a whim to see Rocky, if only out of curiosity, as the show had gotten rave critical reviews (and there weren’t any other shows listed on TKTS we were super anxious to see that we hadn’t already seen before). I knew the score was by Stephen Flaherty, and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens (the same writing team as Ragtime, Once on This Island, and many others), so the odds were hopeful that the score would be great, but I was still wary of how the show would unfold.

Rocky cast list

Well, having said all that, I must recant those cynical thoughts, as I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed the show, and how invested I became in the characters and in the story. As in the film, the musical follows the life of boxer Rocky Balboa, as he is offered the opportunity to fight reining (undefeated) champion Apollo Creed in a title bout; concurrent with Rocky’s training, he attempts to woo Adrian, a seemingly timid young woman (and sister of one of his friends), with eventual success. Everything about the show is amazing – from the set design, lighting and use of projections to simulate the streets of Philadelphia circa 1975, to the moment where the theater transformed into a sports arena for the title bout, at which point, those sitting in the first ten or so rows in the center orchestra are asked to rise to be seated on the bleachers seats on stage, as the boxing ring moved out over those rows towards the audience, with monitors descending above the ring simulating an arena jumbo-tron. The  fifteen-round fight, time-lapsed with the use of strobe lights, was thrilling to watch, as audience members rose to their feet, cheering as if they were at an actual boxing match.

All the iconic elements from the film were present, from Rocky punching slabs of meat, his running up the steps during his training to the interweaving of the Rocky theme into the original score and inclusion of “Eye of the Tiger”. The score itself captured the essence of the show, with a fine balance between touching ballads and rousing anthems. The cast was spectacular, especially Andy Karl as the titular character, expertly showcasing the charisma, the physicality and the sensitivity of the character, displaying the many facets of a complex character. I would not be surprised when he is nominated and (perhaps) wins a Tony for his outstanding performance.

The stage door experience was great, per usual, with many of the cast coming out to greet those waiting, signing playbills and posing for photos – even with the intense workout that transpired on stage (fantastic fight choreography by Steven Hoggett) both Andy Karl and Terence Archie emerged from the stage door (on a two-show day) to greet and chat with those waiting at the stage door.

Me and Andy Karl at the stage door

Me and Andy Karl at the stage door

Rocky is a classic underdog story of a “nobody” being given a chance to prove his worth to the world and to himself to become “somebody”, with a sweet love story that balances the brutality of boxing. As the show’s tag line states, “Love Wins”, and is quite the contender.