Written on: 14/04/2007 by Timothy Winey (2 reviews written)
The genius of LINZI HATELEY is her ability to reconcile the slapstick with the sublime while somehow, miraculously convincing the audience that both are necessary.
Thursday, April 12, 2007
Bravo, Bravo, Bravissimo LINZI HATELEY. Even when bravo is repeated for emphasis or used in its superlative form "Bravissimo," it seems a pathetically inadequate kudo to encapsulate the sheer weight of LINZI HATELEY's portrayal of Donna in Mamma Mia. Bravo! Admittedly denotes much enthusiasm and admiration, but simultaneously sheds far too little, if any, light on why I felt spontaneously compelled to shout it at LINZI HATELEY during her curtain call. I'm ashamed to admit that when I first saw LINZI HATELEY's publicity photo announcing her as the new Donna, I was actually angry. I thought to myself "come on Benny and Bjorn, say it aint so; don't tell me that you have also sold out to the Hollywood machine!" In my own defense, my suspicions were not totally unjustified given LINZI HATELEY's far too glamorous, and to my eye, youthful appearance combined with Hollywood's recent casting of the lead roles of none other than Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia the movie, to boot, yuck!
LINZI HATELEY has, like a catalyst in a chemical reaction, single-handedly transformed the role of Donna and in turn (much like a chain reaction), also transformed Mamma Mia, as a byproduct of the first reaction. Thermodynamics aside, the dramatic energy of Mamma Mia obeys entirely different laws when driven (catalyzed) by LINZI HATELEY as Donna. Make no mistake; I do not wish to convey the notion that the role of Donna has been somehow dramatically "improved" by LINZI HATELEY, unless of course you consider a Porsche Carrera a dramatically "improved" VW beetle. Yes a VW beetle is roundish in shape and has a rear-mounted engine, but for me, that's where the qualitative similarities part company.
I know the more skeptical of you out there are wondering how I could possibly write anything more glowing than my previous critiques of earlier Donnas, critiques that bordered on fanatical idolatry? The answer to that rhetorical question is below; just keep reading. I just need to dash to the kitchen for a moment to take the "crow" out of the oven. Don't pity me, I don't mind it too much; it's a small dietary sacrifice for the privilege of having a LINZI HATELEY "experience." In order to put LINZI HATELEY's characterization of Donna into perspective, one cannot really do it comparatively; one needs, instead to devise a new scale of measurement, appropriate to the size and weight of the object being measured. One does not measure the diameter of planets in millimeters because even though it's possible, it yields numbers that are too large and hence, unwieldy.
For those of you who follow classical music, especially in London, Sir Thomas Beecham needs no introduction. Arturo Toscanini said of Beecham, in what must have been the greatest backhanded musical compliment of all time, "Beecham is a genius, amateur."
If one heard nothing but good amateur orchestras, Beecham's performances would, no doubt, cause one to think one had died and gone to musical heaven. But then if one heard Toscanini after Beecham, one would be forced to conclude that what one thought was heaven, was really a musical purgatory. In other words, Beecham would quickly go from being a giant, to being the world's tallest midget. In my view, LINZI HATELEY is as different from the next best Donna, as the world's tallest giant next to the world's tallest midget.
LINZI HATELEY brought out subtleties in Mamma Mia that I am not convinced, even the creators, had the insight to "write" into the script; nor am I sure if it would even be possible, for the creators to have "written down" what she did. I am reminded of the sheer musical genius of Leonard Bernstein who imbued music with meaning in ways that no one else could, even the composers of said music! Igor Stravinsky once admitted that "Lenny" brought out things while conducting "The Right of Spring" that not even he (Stravinsky) knew were there! Similarly, LINZI HATELEY brought out aspects, both dramatic and musical, of Mamma Mia that I didn't think were even possible.
I know this will seem like a detour, but bear with me; I recently saw the Royal Operas televised performance of Wagner's complete Ring Cycle (approx. 15 hours). Despite being introduced by Michael Portillo in the most nauseatingly patronizing and arrogantly pseudo-intellectual way, as if to say "thank you all for giving up banger racing this weekend to give opera a chance," it was well worth it. The vocal, orchestral and most impressively, dramatic elements were woven into a seamless continuum of the highest artistic quality. It was deeply moving, and I'm not just saying that because of the occasional appearance of the Rein maidens topless! Just in case you were wondering, I have not yet gotten around to registering a complaint about the maidens with the Royal Opera!
In my view, LINZI HATELEY's task in Mamma Mia, was in some ways, more challenging than the role of Brunhilde or Sigfried in Wagner's Ring Cycle, what most consider to be the most monumental task in Opera. How can I make such an audacious claim? Well, here's how. Wagner was the composer, librettist and dramatist of the ring Cycle; in short, every word, every syllable, note, stage action, plot dynamic, was created by Wagner to interrelate in a complete artistic creation. Mamma Mia was created, as many critics point out, as a cute, but somewhat superficial excuse to sing ABBA music. LINZI HATELEY manages, with an uncanny depth of insight, to seamlessly convey the deeper and more universal archetypes hidden in this seemingly superficial story. With a kind of musical and dramatic alchemy, LINZI HATELEY transmutates the songs of ABBA (whose lyrics leave many gaps in terms of their ability to tell the whole story) into a coherent work of art (transfiguring the superficiality of contemporary "pop lead" into a timeless, and much more weighty, 24 karat "Rein-gold" to borrow from my friend Wagner). The genius of LINZI HATELEY is her ability to reconcile the slapstick with the sublime while somehow, miraculously convincing the audience that both are necessary.
In the first scene where Donna encounters Sam, her reaction is more of surprise than anger, which totally transforms the rest of the plot as it unfolds making the overall story much more believable. In her more shocked than angered reaction Donna gives the audience the distinct feeling she is replaying her entire past with Sam and somehow reliving the same feeling of false hope she felt when she thought he had abandoned her all those years ago. This simple tweaking of her reaction, set up the rest of the story in a far more authentic light and hence, renders the characters much more complex. This, in turn, elevates them from mere excuse props for singing ABBA tunes, into bona-fide characters who belong there, with or without ABBA. Because she isn't overly bitter, her hysterical, knee-buckling rendition of Mamma Mia is that much more reminiscent of a middle-aged woman suddenly transformed into a weak-kneed teenager in the presence of a cute boy. It also raises the deeper and more uncomfortable reality that no matter how grown up we seem to be, much of our personalities are shaped by these youthful indiscretions, which make Donna's reduction to a rubber-kneed teenager that much more poignant and funny at the same time. I'm struck with the oxymoronic overtones of the expression "youthful indiscretion" insofar as youthfulness, by virtue of the lack of experience characterizing it, is not as much "indiscrete" as it is an inevitable byproduct, often tragic, of youth. I think the laughter during that scene was a different kind of laughter, almost cathartic. It's as if every girl who was ever jilted in her youth, relives it through Donna's rubber-kneed descent into teenage irrationality. It also speaks to the broader notion that deep down, all most people really want is to be loved unconditionally, and that much of what passes for "grown-up" activities are really fatally doomed efforts to win the "unconditional" love and approval of others by virtue of the simple fact that with the act of "earning" love and respect, both cease to be unconditional and hence, loose their purity.
During Chiquitita and Dancing queen, one feels that Donna was genuinely cheered-up by Tanya and Rosie which provides much welcomed hope about the elasticity of the human spirit and the hope for a brighter tomorrow. The choreography of the three dynamos and the physical comedy they matched to the lyrics, defies words, even for me! I have seen several performances of Mamma Mia under other casts, and this was by far, the most meticulously crafted, expertly sung and acted thus far. I don't think I could take anything much funnier without pulling a muscle laughing. While previous Tanyas may have "looked" the part and acted it well enough in terms of Tanya as a two-dimensional archetypal gold-digger, this Tanya (Jane Gurnett) imbues the character with such expert vocals, physical comedy and relatability to Donna and Rosie, as to put her on Mt. Olympus with the other giants, separating her also, from earthly midgets.
The new Sophie (Hannah Robertson) was delightful. She projects just the right balance of innocence, likeability, believability (especially in her scenes with Sky [Paul Shelford]) and strong vocals. One really senses her genuine doubts about the wedding and her naivet in the opening number, where she conveys, through it, her desire to find herself through her paternity search. The new Sky perfectly complements Sophie; he is naturally very funny, boyishly handsome (but not in a vain or self conscious way) and believably heterosexual. Tanya was excellent in the scene with Pepper in "Does Your Mother Know." She milks every ounce out of that scene without over doing any one aspect of the character, all the while displaying what is clearly a highly trained and unflappable vocal facility.
LINZI HATELEY's rendition of "Slipping Through my Fingers" was absolutely magical. Forgive me Bjorn, but LINZI HATELEY is technically and interpretively an even better singer than Agnetha; I mean that sincerely. Her tonal range is like a simmering volcano, making everything she sings sizzle with an underlying passion. And like a simmering volcano, she produces a steady stream of energy that holds your attention in anticipation of a catastrophic eruption that thankfully, never materializes. Her vocal quality has in my view, an analog in the violin playing of Mischa Elman or the singing of Mario Lanza (with a sex change, of course). For the uninitiated, it may seem easy to do, but I assure you, what Donna did with "The Winner Takes it All" is technically and dramatically, a very precarious and extremely difficult thing to pull off. Instead of singing the whole song, she talks for portions of it and then, with impeccable pitch, picks up the notes of the melody. This gave the piece a much more authentic and believable effect in that she was essentially crying the song. I have never seen such risks taken in that way in live theater, and I am in awe of her for taking such chances (considering how perfect it was, I suspect she just may be a better singer than even I give her credit for).
With humble, awe-struck adulation,
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