I spend an awful lot of time in theaters that were once something else. The Theatre de la Jeune Lune space, as an example, led a robust previous life as a five-story warehouse. The Minneapolis Theatre Garage is a former auto shop. The Illusion Theater inhabits a Romanesque former Masonic Temple, which once included a long-gone onion-shaped dome and, presumably, gaunt-faced Norwegian gentlemen in blue velvet collars, white lambskin aprons, black silk hats, and white gloves. The Hey City Theatre was once the Hirshfield's building, and I sometimes suspect it wishes it still was.
So once in a while it is nice to go to a theater that was built to be just that: a theater. Downtown Minneapolis was liberally sprinkled with vaudeville houses in the Twenties, grand palaces built for popular entertainment. Now only three remain: the Historic State Theatre, the Orpheum Theatre, and the empty Shubert Theatre. The latter of these old houses now pipes mournful classical melodies onto Hennepin Avenue, casting a superannuated watch over its former home, the notorious Block E, as an entertainment complex springs up. Forgotten is the Shubert's own history of entertainment. Who remembers that it was once home to the Wright Huntington Players, which started actor Richard Dix on a career that would eventually catapult him to the silver screen in such movies as The Quarterback and The Vanishing American? And of those who remember, who cares?
Well, the Orpheum still has a sense of history, thanks to a $10 million restoration financed by the Minneapolis Community Development Agency in 1988. This is, after all, the same theater that opened its doors with headlining Marx Brothers in October of 1921. The Orpheum's faux-Pompeiian frieze-bedecked lobby, vaulted auditorium, 15-foot-high chandelier, hand-detailed walls resplendent in gold and silver leaf, and 55-foot proscenium arch all bespeak the importance of theater. After all, if theater were not important, would it deserve so grand a setting?
Alas, if the house itself has a memory, its managers do not. Its ongoing, noxious Hennepin Broadway Series continues to bring ill-conceived touring productions into this majestic location, such as Mamma Mia!, which I took in this past weekend. The forthcoming season includes such shopworn amusements as Fiddler on the Roof and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, as well as yet another production of Proof. The other two productions both boast exclamation marks in their names: Swing! and Blast!, the former consisting of nothing but swing dancing, the latter consisting of nothing but brass bands.
Mamma Mia!, itself the possessor of an earnest little exclamation point, is a rough assemblage of songs by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, formerly of Abba, and while there is real pleasure to be found in hearing such tight-harmony Europop classics as "Take a Chance on Me" and "The Name of the Game," Andersson and Ulvaeus apparently didn't think it was necessary to concoct much of a story to connect the songs. They have, instead, tossed off some fadoodle about a girl on a Greek island inviting three of her mother's former lovers to her wedding, believing one of them to be her father. But the plot is there merely as an excuse for the music: The girl's mother (here played by Dee Hoty, a three-time Tony nominee who must have taken this role to pay off gambling debts) complains of her constant workload and her lack of vacation time, which is all just a brief preamble to her rendition of "Money, Money, Money." Once the song is finished, the subject of the mother's work-weariness is dropped, and it is just as well.
With this musical, as seems to be consistently the case with the Orpheum, we have been given the unwanted opportunity to enter a resplendent theater for the sake of listening to a few silly pop songs. It is very much like opening a gold- and jewel-encrusted treasure box and finding it empty but for an A-Teens CD. Hooray, a booby prize, and so nicely wrapped.