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Mamma Mia (6/10)

by Tony Medley

What does Hollywood have against musicals? Would it cast Fred Astaire instead of Clark Gable as Rhett Butler in 1939’s “Gone With the Wind,” Bing Crosby instead of Humphrey Bogart as Rick in 1942’s “Casablanca,” or Pat Boone as Terry Malone instead of Marlon Brando in 1954’s “On the Waterfront?” These were roles for dramatic actors, not song and dance men.

Yet Hollywood constantly casts dramatic actors instead of people with musical talent as leads in musicals, witness Brando in “Guys and Dolls,” Rossano Brazzi as Emile de Becque, the role of operatic star Ezio Pinza in “South Pacific;” Vanessa Redgrave instead of Julie Andrews in “Camelot,” Natalie Wood as Maria in “West Side Story.” The list is almost endless and the movies suffered as a result.

When will producers learn that musicals are about MUSIC? All these casting decisions that put the music in second place behind acting made those films less than what they could, and should, have been. Now comes “Mamma Mia,” a movie of a play that was written by putting together many of the hit songs of the wonderful ABBA singing group of the ‘70s. I saw the play in its pre-Broadway run here in Los Angeles at the Shubert and it was a knockout. I was really looking forward to the movie.

The movie does have gorgeous cinematography (Haris Zambarloukos) of the Greek locations and the same wonderful music, albeit unevenly performed. Unfortunately, it also has Meryl Streep in the starring role. Fifty years ago, the perfect casting for this role would have been Doris Day or Shirley Jones. This film is about music and it demands a professional singer, not an award-winning dramatic actress with no musical cred. I know that Streep has a singing voice because I saw her in 2006’s “A Prairie Home Companion.” But she is not a professional singer. I can play the piano, but the Hollywood Bowl is not about to ask me to play Rhapsody in Blue on its stage.

If the producers really wanted a blonde devoid of movie star beauty and with little or no sex appeal for the role, however, they could have cast Celine Dion instead of Streep. Celine at least has a professional’s voice and knows how to sell a song.

Much better casting would have been Reba McEntire. She’s the right age; she’s sexy; she has so many hits they fill volumes. She can act a little. Best of all, she knows how to belt out a song. This role doesn’t require Method acting. Let’s face it, the story was written around the music, which explains why it’s so weak. What the role requires is masterful singing. The songs sung by Streep fell completely flat for me until the end credits when she sings a couple of encores with her former group members from the ‘70s, Rosie (Julie Walters) and Tanya (Christine Baranski). Fittingly, the credits for Walters and Baranski are virtually devoid of musical experience.

The directing (Plyllida Lloyd, who directed the play and whose experience is exclusively from the theater) and script (Catherine Johnson, who did a good job of writing a moderately entertaining book around the music, but whose experience is also has exclusively for the theater) fall far short of what I was expecting. Lloyd fills the first half of this movie with such contrived conviviality it destroys the verisimilitude of the characters. All these scenes ring terribly false.

There really aren’t any beautiful women in this movie. In addition to the sexless Streep, Sophie, the illegitimate daughter of Donna (Streep) is played by Amanda Seyfried. I’m not sure why she was cast in this role. She’s not movie-star beautiful (although, as the only moderately attractive woman in the movie, she appears a rose among thorns). She isn’t a great singer (like everyone else in the cast, her credits don’t include any musical experience). She’s not much of a dancer. There was a perfect person to play Sophie, Mandy Moore, or, if they wanted to take a chance, Natasha Bedingfield. Both are prettier than Seyfried, but more important, they are both major league singers. There are lots of beautiful young singers who could have taken this role. Why Seyfried (unless she came cheap)? Sophie’s joined by two friends, Lisa (Rachel McDowall) and Ali (Ashley Lilley), whose looks in comparison make Sophie more attractive than she really is.

As to the dancing, I was enormously disappointed in the choreography by Anthony Van Laast, who did the choreography for the play. Maybe the inferior dancing is not so surprising because the dancing in the play wasn’t that much to write home about. Van Laast really misses the mark with the choreography for the song that was the real show-stopper in the play, “Dancing Queen.” He has the entire cast jumping around on a dock. In fact, most of his choreography involved people jumping, including Streep jumping up and down on a bed. There’s nothing Fosse-like about it, and it detracts from the music. Fortunately, Streep, Walters, and Baranski sing ‘Dancing Queen” (and “Waterloo”) again over the closing credits, all dressed up like ABBA in the ‘70s, and it is the best part of the film.

The men have all the best of it in this film because, mostly, they don’t have to sing. None of them, Stellan Skarsgǻrd, Pierce Brosnan, and Colin Firth, is a singer, but only Brosnan and Firth sing, with even less effect than Streep. Three of Brosnan’s four songs, “SOS,” “I Do, I Do,…” and “When All is Said and Done,” are duets with Streep. Firth sings playing a guitar (“Our Last Summer”). Like everyone else in the cast, he’s not ready for Carnegie Hall. Singing aside, the men all give good performances, however. The only woman whose performance gets a passing grade from me is Baranski, who makes the best of her material, despite the absurdity of her character.

All the lack of attention to the quality of the music is puzzling because the executive producers are Benny Anderson and Björn Ulvaeus, the two men who wrote all of ABBA’s music. My guess is that they must have fallen for the financiers’ demands that the movie feature a bankable star, so they accepted Streep. I can’t imagine that anyone who could create music as great as ABBA’s would voluntarily accept someone with Streep’s modest singing ability as their star.

The quality of the written music and the cinematography carry this film, even with the appalling lack of musical credentials and ability of the cast, so it’s a film that most people might enjoy.

But, unlike most, I am more like Bobby Kennedy, who was fond of quoting George Bernard Shaw, “You see things as they are and say ‘why?’ I dream things that never were and ask, ‘Why not?'”

July 7, 2008