There has been a trend afoot in musicals to weave a tapestry around a band’s unrelated songs that has absolutely nothing to do with the original numbers themselves. Unlike The Who’s classic rock opera Tommy or Pink Floyd’s concept album The Wall, where the composers and lyricists designed the sound to express underlying ideas and plots, the stories and imagery for 1999’s Mamma Mia!, 2002’s We Will Rock You and Cirque du Soleil’s 2006 Love are spun completely out of whole cloth and then cleverly garbed in music by Abba, Queen and the Beatles. Audiences giggle in giddy recognition when the dramatis personae’s dialogue and derring-do wittily, organically, inexorably lead to the lyrics of one of these oldies but goodies (this vogue only works with vintage bands which have inculcated followings over the, uh, decades).
The Ovation Award-winning Troubador Theater Company’s Abbamemnon arguably has the cleverest conception of this theatrical tendency. Although Mamma Mia! had an insipid, uninspired plot enlivened by the Swedish disco band Abba’s 1970s ebullient beat, Abbamemnon has a brilliant premise: Uniting that mindless dance music with the Greek tragedy Agamemnon. This extremely bloody drama is the first play in the ancient trilogy called The Oresteia by Aeschylus and its mingling with disco seems like it would be the most inspired combo since the invention of the BLT.
But a work of art requires more than a brainstorm -- it must be worked out and executed. Unfortunately, the Troubies’ genre spoofing mash up does not live up to the promise of its premise. First of all, the sung lyrics and sometimes the spoken dialogue are often difficult to discern. Whereas the combustible mixture of disco and Greek tragedy required a more subtle, satirical sensibility, as in the 1969’s James Garner Western Support Your Local Sheriff!, the company as directed by Matt Walker opts for a more broad, vaudevillian, slapstick interpretation a la Mel Brooks’ 1974 Blazing Saddles.
To be sure, there is much romping and hoofing with music provided by a live band -- the Troubies are truly a pack of dancing queens and kings. Latecomers are serenaded by a Greek chorus who mock them as they take their seats (touché!). There are topical commentaries of the “get-the-joke?” kind, such as about the flood at UCLA or how pricey Gladstone’s in Malibu is. The thesps actually wear togas (a bugaboo of this critic, who is skeptical of modern dress versions of plays originally produced in ancient Greece: beware of Greeks wearing shifts) and sandals, which enhances the ambiance of this period piece. The 90 minute one-acter does project lots of frenetic fun (if more for the large onstage cast than for audience members), but whoever wrote this is no Oscar Wilde. We Will Rock You, which is playing at the Ahmanson through Aug. 24, is far cleverer and much better. Perhaps this is why your reviewer was unable to find a playwright’s credit for Abbamemnon, which was mildly -- if not wildly -amusing.
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To tell you the truth, this critic infinitely preferred the Getty Villa’s production a few years back of Agamemnon, starringTyne Daly (of TV’s Cagney & Lacey cop series)as Agamemnon’s thwarted wife Clytemnestra, with Delroy Lindo (who has appeared in films such as The Cider House Rules and Malcolm X, as well as in many plays here and beyond, including A Raisin in the Sun) as the eponymous and adulterous King Agamemnon.
In any case, versions of the roving Troubies’ Abbamemnon have been presented at the Getty Villa and Burbank’s Falcon Theatre, and most recently for one weekend at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (for more info about its upcoming season see here). As for this critic, he’s looking forward to some more straight forward Greek tragedy when said Getty Villa presents Aeschylus’ The Persians in September outdoors in an amphitheater where it belongs -- hopefully, along with togas and sandals. (For more info see here.)
For more info about the Troubador Theater Company, go here.
L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell co-authored “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.” (See: http://hawaiimtvbook.weebly.com/.) Rampell and co-author Luis Reyes will be signing books on Aug. 16 at Tiki Oasis, at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, 2270 Hotel Circle North, San Diego, CA 92108.