`Mamma Mia!’ and other movie musical mistakes

I know some people who have just flipped over the movie version of Mamma Mia! now plaguing movie theaters. I am not among them.

Having seen the stage version several times, I knew just what I was in for. I enjoyed the show on stage, especially the first time, when the show made its U.S. premiere in San Francisco. I adore the music of ABBA and though the stage version was campy in the right ways, stupid in the right ways and smart in the way it was campy and stupid.

I also adore Meryl Streep when she sings, as she does so brilliantly in Ironweed, Postcards from the Edge, Death Becomes Her and A Prairie Home Companion. I was, however, unprepared for just how ineptly made the movie version of Mamma Mia! was. Director Phyllida Lloyd, who also directed the stage version, had no idea what she was doing, and she and screenwriter Catherine Johnson (who also penned the show) had absolutely no new ideas about turning a stage show into a movie. They even use obvious theatrical lighting for several of the numbers…and all of this is happening on a real Greek island (a Greek island, I might add, that often looks like a soundstage, even when it isn’t). Dumb, dumb, dumb.

Early on I was annoyed by how Lloyd hardly ever let a scene just transpire. She didn’t let actors talk or even complete a sentence without the camera jumping or the awkward of dubbing of lines attempting to smooth over a rough edit. She makes Streep come across strident and ridiculous (and MUCH too old – at nearly 60, Streep looks great, but when we’re spending so much talking about her wild summer 20 years ago when she got pregnant by one of three possible boyfriends, we have to think: What’s wrong with this 40-year-old woman who can’t seem to get her life together?). And she wastes the abundant talents of Julie Walters, sidelined in one of the “best friend” roles. Oddly, Christine Baranski, another of the best friends, gets the movies best number, “Does Your Mother Know,” because the number is contained, and we’re able to get a real sense of Baranski’s performance. This is unlike Walters’ big number, “Take a Chance on Me,” which ends up scrambling across rooftops and making Walters dangle from a roof like a damsel in distress. Horrible.

The closing credits, with the full cast decked in ’70s ABBA finery, could have been fun, but in my bad mood, cultivated by every frame of the movie, I wanted to throw Pet Rocks and burning bras at the screen.

I will say I’m happy that Mamma Mia! is making money because I want the movie musical to continue, despite this creative setback.

But from what I’ve heard, we’re heading into risky territory with upcoming cinematic musical projects.

First, they want to make a sequel to the movie musical Hairspray. A sequel. Never a good idea. The entire creative team from the movie musical (including director/choreographer Adam Shankman and composers Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman) will be on board. Shankman told Variety: “I never thought of musicals as franchises, but it certainly worked with High School Musical, and the idea of working with that cast again, and creating new material and music, is a dream come true. John (Waters) has such an original and extraordinary voice; we all can’t wait to see what he has come up with.”

God only knows what they’ll come up with, but my feeling is they should leave well enough alone.

And here’s another unnecessary project: It’s time to do the “Time Warp” again. MTV is going to remake The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Yes, the 1975 movie that became a midnight cult classic and inspired more men to wear makeup and fishnets than any other film, is going to be made for TV. Maybe in time for Halloween and maybe with some of the music from the stage show that didn’t make it into the movie.

Are there no original ideas left in the world of movie musicals? What’s next, a remake of My Fair Lady? Oh, wait! Yes! And Emma Thompson has been tapped to write the screenplay with Keira Knightley as Eliza Doolittle.

Originality sure ain’t what it used to be. I’m scared that the movie musical I’m most looking forward to – based on one moment in the preview that takes place on the basketball court and in the bleachers – is High School Musical 3.

Just for kicks, let’s actually do “The Time Warp” again.

You can’t stop the beat!

Brooklynn Pulver (above center) is Tracy Turnblad in the touring production of Hairspray. Photo by Phil Martin

Last summer, it was yet another musical breathing new life into the revival of movie musicals.

This summer, it’s an actual, three-dimensional live musical happening before your very eyes.

Hairspray, one of the happiest musicals around, is returning to the Bay Area. The show — described as “Broadway’s big fat musical comedy hit” — will play San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre June 10 through 22.

This tour — the same one that was in Cupertino in February — is based on Jack O’Brien’s original direction and Jerry Mitchell’s original choreography, recreated, respectively, by Matt Lenz and Danny James Austin.

Sorry to report that John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer, Queen Latifah and Zac Efron are unavailable for the tour and will, for the moment, confine their performances to the silver screen. But wouldn’t it be fun to see if they could do it as well LIVE?

For information visit www.shnsf.com or www.hairsprayontour.com.

Stage presents: A theater gift guide

So many fine gift ideas, so little space. Let’s get started with some great theater books.

In the realm of books about theater, this year’s standout comes from San Mateo native Thomas Schumacher, who also happens to be the president of Disney Theatrical, the producer of such hits as The Lion King and Mary Poppins. Schumacher’s How Does the Show Go On? An Introduction to the Theater (Disney Editions, $19.95) is geared toward the young theatergoer (ages 9 to 12), but it’s a hugely entertaining look at the entire theatrical picture, from the beginning of a show to the most intricate details of daily production.

The Bay Area can’t get enough of the musical Jersey Boys. For the most avid fans, there is, of course, a coffee-table book. Jersey Boys: The Story of Frankie Vallie and the Four Seasons (Broadway, $40) contains the show’s libretto, lots of photos and a thorough guide to the real Four Seasons and their Broadway counterparts.

You think you know everything about The Sound of Music? Think again. Author Laurence Maslon has assembled the ultimate look behind the scenes of the world’s most beloved movie musical. The Sound of Music Companion (Fireside, $40) covers every aspect of the show, right up to the British reality TV show that allowed viewers to vote on the actress who wound up playing Maria on London’s West End.

The hottest show on Broadway is the multi-Tony Award-winning Spring Awakening. Fans already have memorized the great cast album, so give them Spring Awakening (Theatre Communications Group, $13.95), the libretto (by Steven Sater) and a new adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s original play by novelist Jonathan Franzen (Faber and Faber, $11.70). Franzen hates the musical, by the way, so it’s interesting to see how the play and the musical diverge.

This was the year of the movie musical — or maybe I should say the good movie musical. If your gift recipient loves musicals, make sure he or she has Hairspray (New Line Home Entertainment, $34.98 for two-disc version, $28.98 for single-disc), the joyous movie version of the Broadway hit; Once (20th Century Fox, $29.99), a fascinating and musically rich love story about an Irish street musician and an interesting woman he meets by chance; Colma: The Musical (Lionsgate, $27.98), a locally grown musical with catchy tunes and a better-than-average cast of characters. The best of the big-ticket DVD items this year is The Noel Coward Collection ($79.98 BBC/Warner), a veritable treasure trove of Cowardly delights. The set contains seven discs and runs some 19 hours (plus another 12 hours of bonus material that includes interviews, radio plays and more). The plays included are Private Lives (with the delectable Penelope Keith), Hay Fever, Design for Living, Present Laughter, A Song at Twilight, Mr. and Mrs. Edgehill and Tonight at 8:30.

This isn’t a CD, but while we’re on the subject of Coward, this year saw the release of a fantastic volume of Coward’s letters: The Letters of Noel Coward (Knopf, $37.50), edited by Barry Day. The beauty is that the book contains letters both from and to Coward, whose beastly wit entertains in every epistle.

The fine folks at PS Classics, the show-minded label that, in addition to turning out excellent original-cast albums, allows musical theater performers the chance to show their vocal stuff, have released some terrific new discs just in time for the holidays.

The best of the bunch is Lauren Kennedy’s Here and Now, a marvelous collection of show music and pop. Album highlight is Andrew Lippa’s “Spread a Little Joy,” followed closely by Jason Robert Brown’s “In This Room” and Adam Guettel‘s “Through the Mountain” (from Floyd Collins). Kennedy’s voice is so vibrant — at times so Streisandian — it’s irresistible.

PS Classics also is offering two more Broadway divas: Tony Award-winner Victoria Clark (Light in the Piazza) with Fifteen Seconds to Love, a solid collection mixing standards (“Right as the Rain,” “I Got Lost in His Arms”) and newer material (Ricky Ian Gordon’s “The Red Dress,” Jane Kelly Williams’ “Fifteen Seconds of Grace”); and Andrea Burns (soon to be on Broadway again in In the Heights) with A Deeper Shade of Red, a set that mixes Joni Mitchell (“Chelsea Morning”) with Stephen Sondheim (“What More Do I Need?”) and Melissa Manchester (“Through the Eyes of Grace”) with Kate Bush and Rodgers and Hammerstein (“Man with the Child in His Eyes/Something Wonderful”).

PS Classics’ Songwriter Series with the Library of Congress’ latest offering is a doozy: Jonathan Larson: Jonathan Sings Larson. The composer of Rent, who died tragically the night before his show opened, is heard singing demos and performing live, and the disc paints an incredible portrait of an artist full of talent, humor and ambition. The accompanying DVD features four live performances from Larson’s gig at New York’s Village Gate.

Road trip = show tunes!

Howdy, Theater Dogs.

I’ve been on vacation for the last week or so, but I’m back, eager to bring you interesting tidbits of theater news and reviews.

Took a roadtrip up the Oregon coast — took 101 from San Francisco to the beautiful little hamlet known as Rockaway Beach. Breathtakingly beautiful pretty much the entire way. I highly recommend it. At Rockaway, one of the most striking local attractions is called Twin Rocks, and they’re just offshore of a gorgeous expanse of white-sand beach. Here — see for yourself (it’s much prettier in person):

But now to my point. For me, road trip means one thing: a big-time show tune sing-along. I’ll spare you all the gory details (and believe me, if you’re not traveling with the right people or person, show tunes in an enclosed space can be dangerous, so please, exercise caution), but I will tell you that there were two big hits on the California-to-Oregon playlist: the cast album of Legally Blonde, the Musical and the soundtrack recording of Hairspray.

Legally Blonde, the Broadway musical version of the hit movie that had its pre-Broadway tryout in San Francisco, makes for a fun listen. People who saw the show here can give a listen to the new songs (“Positive”) and all the changes made to the versions we heard (most notably, Orfeh gets a big Broadway finish on the “Ireland” reprise). Bouncy and happy, the score is light and enjoyable, but I will say it suffers some in translation to disc. It seems sillier on disc than it does on stage, and Laura Bell Bundy as Elle, so chipper and bright onstage, doesn’t have a great voice. And some of the songs (“There! Right There!” and “Chip on My Shoulder” are good for a listen or two but are definitely not worth the space they take up on the ol’ MP3 player. Some enjoyable tunes — “What You Want,” for instance — are fun onstage, but they go on forever on disc. But if you have affection for the show, as I do, the cast album is a must.

The most enjoyable album of the summer belongs to the most enjoyable movie of the summer, which also happens to be the most enjoyable movie musical to come out since…I guess Chicago, but Hairspray is an awful lot more fun because it’s not remotely cynical.

With this soundtrack, composer Marc Shaiman (a pop-show tune genius), who co-wrote the score with the equally brilliant Scott Wittman, indulges his every fantasy to beef up the orchestrations with strings, horns and even more good humor. A song I don’t like much from the Broadway original, “Miss Baltimore Crabs,” is turned into a true event thanks to Shaiman’s witty arrangement and Michelle Pfeiffer’s fabulously pinched performance. The same is true of the title song, which is pretty forgettable, but Shaiman beefs it up, and James Marsden’s surprisingly delightful performance makes it a winner (check out his little Michael Buble moment toward the end).

As for the great songs — “Good Morning, Baltimore,” “Welcome to the ’60s,” “I Know Where I’ve Been,” “I Can Hear the Bells,” “Run and Tell That,” “Without Love” and “You Can’t Stop the Beat” — they’re better and brighter than ever. And I must say, I’m quite fond of the new songs “Ladies’ Choice,” sung by Zac Efron, and the end titles song, “Come So Far, Got So Far To Go,” sung by most of the cast. I don’t quite get the other end titles song, “Cooties,” but hey, it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.

Shaiman and company have outdone themselves on this album, which I’m playing repeatedly. Sorry, Spring Awakening, but Hairspray the movie is my new favorite thing (so sue me, I’m fickle).

`Hairspray,’ a movie musical to love

Summer has finally arrived, at least it has for me. Living in the cool-to-cold, foggy Bay Area, I seek my summer thrills in movie theates (sorry, but the thought of outdoor summer theater in the Bay Area fills me with dread — except for California Shakespeare Theater, whose skills transcend the cold).

I found summer in Hairspray, the hilarious, joyful movie version of the Broadway musical, which is in turn based on an original 1988 John Waters movie. Forget recent Broadway-to-movie adaptations like Rent, The Producers and The Phantom of the Opera. They don’t even begin to compare to the thrills of Hairspray, which manages — and this is really something — to not feel manufactured. It feels clever and sharp and well constructed, which makes it feel less like a shiny product and more like an engaged and engaging work of art.

Way back in the summer of 2002, I remember listening to the cast album of Broadway’s Hairspray straight through (this was before my iPod put my life on shuffle) and immediately went to the computer and bought a ticket for the show, then planned a trip to New York around it.

I’ve been a fan since, and the show is among the most enjoyable I’ve ever experienced. There’s just something about the energy of the cast and the audience having a great time and dancing to the same beat.

The movie, frankly, made me nervous. Director Adam Shankman didn’t seem the obvious choice to guide the movie or choreograph it on the basis of his previous film work such as The Wedding Planner, A Walk to Remember and >Bringing Down the House. Well, it turns out Shankman was exactly the right man to bottle the exuberance of the show and translate it into a movie that seems like a movie much more than stage-bound show.

Little details abound in the movie that make it worth seeing more than once, and the performances are, for the most part, stellar. I was thoroughly unconvinced by John Travolta as Edna Turnblad in the previews, but he quickly won me over with his Baltimore accent, which quickly turns charming (and has me calling everyone “hun.”) Young Nikki Blonsky is a real find as Tracy, the plucky teen dancer who inadvertently helps integrate Baltimore television in 1962.

It turns out that Michelle Pfeiffer looking more gorgeous than ever, is a crispy comic actress; Christopher Walken is made for quirky musicals; Zac Efron proves more than a pretty face as Linc Larkin; James Marsden lights up the screen as Corny Collins; Allison Janney as a religious nut mother steals every scene she’s in (which isn’t many); and if they ever make The Sammy Davis Jr. Story, I elect newcomer Elijah Kelley, who plays Seaweed here, for the part.

I must admit a little disappointment in Queen Latifah as Motormouth Maybelle. Latifah is a delightful screen presence, no question, and she looks great here. But she’s lacking the emotional heft the role needs. Maybelle is a deeply soulful woman with a tremendous zest for life. She’s sensual and spiritual, and those aspects don’t really come through in Latifah’s performance, pleasant as it is.

Screenwriter Leslie Dixon has made some smart choices in adapting the musical for the screen, and genius songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman have augmented the Broadway score with some good new songs, including “Ladies Choice” and “Come So Far (So Far to Go).” I noticed at least four songs in the credits (all Shaiman-Wittman compositions) that are not on the movie soundtrack CD. What gives? Can we expect a Vol. II if the movie’s as huge a hit as it deserves to be?

I hope when Oscar time rolls around next year, the Academy remembers that in the summer of 2007, there was a major flash of celluloid happiness called Hairspray.

`Hairspray’ clips

Excitement is mounting for the movie version of Hairspray, which opens July 20.

I know several people who have seen early screenings of the movie and they LOVE it, so push all thoughts of lousy Broadway-to-movie musicals aside (hit the skids Rent, back to the basement Phantom, off to summer stock Producers).

First up is a clip of Zac Efron as Link Larkin singing a song written for the movie, “Ladies’ Choice.”

And here’s the movie trailer:

Here’s the official “Hairspray” movie site: www.hairspraymovie.com

Travolta’s drag

The first glimpse of John Travolta as Edna Turnblad in the now-filming movie based on the hit Broadway musical Hairspray has been released, and it’s….well, see for yourself.

Yes, that’s Travolta on the left. And he’d probably want you to know he’s wearing a fat suit.

The young woman on the right is Nikki Blonsky, a 17-year-old from Great Neck, Long Island in New York. She won the part of Tracy Turnblad by beating out more than 1,000 other hopefuls in a nationwide search. Blonsky graduated from high school last January and, after getting the Hairspray gig, she quit her job at an ice cream parlor.

Hairspray is filming in Toronto until about December, and the rest of the star-studded cast includes Christopher Walken (as Wilbur Turnblad — yes, Christopher Walken is married to John Travolta in this movie), Michelle Pfeiffer (as Velma Von Tussle), Brittany Snow (as Amber Von Tussle), Queen Latifah (as Motormouth Maybelle), Amanda Bynes (as Penny Pingleton), Allison Janney (as Prudy Pingleton), Zac Effron (as Link Larkin), James Marsden (as Corny Collins) and newcomer Elijah Kelly (as Seaweed).

Composer Marc Shaiman, whom Bay Area audiences saw in Martin Short’s Fame Becomes Me, says the only time this extraordinary cast was all together was for a read-through/sing-through in August:

“The energy and excitement in that room was palpable and contagious. It was outrageously thrilling and exciting to see this incredible and diverse amount of triple-threat talent in one room. In the midst of it all, we witnessed Nikki emerging as Tracy. She didn’t just hold her own with John, Michelle, Christopher and Latifah. Rather, she set the bar for everyone in the cast. It was an incredibly moving experience and something we will never forget.”

Blonsky’s only previous acting experience was at Great Neck Village School, where she played Madame Thenardier in Les Miserables, Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd, Kate in Kiss Me Kate and the title role in Carmen.

Producers say Hairspray, the movie, will be released in the summer of 2007.

And for the record, the Broadway production, which opened Aug. 15, 2002, is still going strong.