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Under the Stars: Boycotts and Bubblegum

Feel-good Fantasy returns to Malkin Bowl

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An 11-member supporting cast ably buoys the three leads, most notably Robyn Wong as a vaudeville diva with a heart-of-gold and Cole Smuland as the club-footed martyr of the strikers’ cause. But it’s the 18-member ensemble that dominates the stage for most of the show. When they’re not striking heroic Wobblie tableaux, the dancers dazzle us with acrobatic feats, synchronized arabesques and even tap dance chops.

No surprise, as the overall aesthetic of the show is set by director Julie Tomaino, who doubles as choreographer. A Vancouver native, she’s come home to direct (among other film and stage credits) Shrek and Hairspray for TUTS, after earning her choreographic chops and Big Apple cred as a Radio City Rockette. The New York street smarts still show in the more-or-less plausible accents (take it from a Brooklyn-born outer borough kid) and the edgy body language the cast brings to Jack Feldman’s lyrical argot and Alan Menken’s edgy score.

Conductor Christopher King keeps the show throbbing with his live combo of 10 musicians in the orchestra pit, while the cast member themselves continuously reconfigure Francesca Albertazzi’s flexible set of rolling, two-tiered angle-iron balcony platforms without distracting scene breaks.

Oddly, with roughly the same number of bodies onstage and in the orchestra pit, TUTS’ other 2019 offering, Mamma Mia!, seemed choked with people. For this show, Albertazzi created a sunny Greek Island hill-scape of whitewashed balconies, rooftops, domes, church spires and mysterious blue-painted portals, out of which mysterious bystanders kept popping like random cuckoos in a crazy clock.

Director Shel Piercy and choreographer Shelley Stewart Hunt, both longtime TUTS veterans, bravely struggle to do what they can with Catherine Johnson and Judy Craymer’s tired script. But the material’s just too stale – a 1992 Broadway musical that drapes a threadbare veil of midlife crisis plotline around the vapid opus of the Swedish bubblegum pop group ABBA.

Now, ABBA’s an acquired taste that you either love or hate. Mercifully absent from the Western world throughout the group's 1980’s heyday, it’s a taste I never acquired. To me, all the songs in Mama Mia! sounded alike: overly percussive march time anthems. Nothing can be done with such a score, even in the hands of such talented co-stars.

Caitriona Murphy plays a Brit-born Greek Island hotelier who’s single-parented her daughter, Keira Jang, up to the brink of a storybook wedding-in-white, to hotel manager Joshua Lalisan. But who’s to “give away” a bride of such uncertain paternity?

Jang inveigles three candidate fathers, each of whom once trysted with Murphy some 21 years ago,  to crop up on the island. There’s erstwhile “head-banger” now turned merchant banker Stefan Winfield, swash-buckling travel writer Matt Ramer and heart-on-his-sleeve divorcee Peter Monaghan. Nonplussed at first, Murphy manages to rekindle her liaison with one of them (guess which), while her two quondam bandmates, American gold-digger Lori Ashton Zondag and Ozzie matron Sheryl Anne Wheaton, stand by to pick up her leavings.

Got that? Never mind. The plot’s too convoluted to follow, anyway. And the script never gives the excellent actors a chance to evince enough plausible feeling for us to care much about their imbroglios. And meanwhile the ABBA beat goes on. And on.

Mama Mia! was made into a 2008 movie starring Meryl Streep “slumming” (in the words of contemporary critics) alongside an A-list Hollywood cast. What were we all thinking?


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