Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Mission: Heaven on Earth (Review)

I'll try and make this short... (spoiler alert)

My poor rabbit spent a lot of money on 2nd row seats for the opening night of a new musical: The Mission: Heaven on Earth, based on the 1986 film which was directed by Roland Joffe and scored by Legendary Italian film composer Ennio Morricone.

Big sighing disappointment all-around. Where does one begin...

I suppose the producers chose Seoul as the place to open their new show to an adoring audience because Koreans are famously mad for their Morricone. He has been here twice in the past 3 years for large-scale concerts and it wouldn't be a rare thing to hear a cell-phone ring-tone set to something from his Cinema Paradiso score. When I saw his concert in the fall of 2007, the beginning of each piece was met with a rock concert response from the Seoul crowd. If any place was going to embrace a musical sold on Morricone's name, Seoul would be the place.

Not so much tonight. Our evening began with two displays of audience shabbery:

1) We mistakenly sat in the wrong seats (one over from where we were supposed to be) and were rudely shooed into the right ones by a jackass know-it-all who could have been a lot kinder, and who kept yammering-away about his extensive knowledge of musicals up until show time.

2) As the starting time was delayed due to the fact that 75% of the audience was ignoring the announcements to take their seats, a different jackass in the first balcony started yelling at the top of his lungs that he wanted his money back because the show was delayed 20 minutes. He just should have held on and waited until the end when he would have had a real reason to ask for a refund.

Anyway, the show...

(It's getting too late for me to write anything overly coherent, so point form is what you get)

1) This show is built on a story of mid-18th Century missionaries attempting to "Christianize" the native populations of South America, while at the same time battling with the Spanish and Portuguese who are re-dividing the land and fighting amongst themselves as to what should be done with the Guarani Indians - turn them into musical-instrument-making/high tenor church-hymn singing God fearing Christians (presented as the positive choice here), or simply move them off the land Avatar-style.

2) The story is set specifically above the Iguaza falls that border Brazil and Argentina. Much is made in the film version of the fact that this specific tribe lives in a virtually unreachable place, and should be off the table when the two European colonial powers talk about dividing the land as well as the control of the mission built there. In short, the falls are key. Rather than present them stylistically, however, the set looks like it was borrowed from the short-lived "Journey into the Jungle Book" at Walt Disney World's Animal Kingdom. It's all green and grey rocks and trees with big plaster vines and root systems, complete with twin actual falls for the folk to climb. Imagine trying to suggest Everest on stage, or something of equal "awesomeness". You can't make it real, so suggest. Less is more. To me, it felt far too tangible and small, and if any sense of awe was being aimed for, the result was way off the mark.

3) The music is of course gorgeous. The Mission is recognized on countless lists as one of the best orchestral film scores, period. However, a few things went wrong: a) Too much use is made of the film's two main musical themes, "On Earth as it is in Heaven" and "Gabriel's Oboe" - both of which are beautiful and haunting in context, but get beaten to death here. Lyrics are added to both at various points and at points, the music does soar - especially when sung by Daniel Gatti as Father Gabriel (The Jeremy Irons role in the film). b) Sadly, most of the (all English) lyrics were lost to me - my hearing's not going, so I'm going to blame it on the sound mixer. The other songs added to flush-out the story are a mixed bag, but none come close to the melodies supplied by Morricone's original score. c) Most disappointing (especially to the rabbit) was the fact that so much of the show was pre-recorded. She was so excited to hear the music performed by a live orchestra for the first time, but no - all through the speakers. The chorus members required for the vocal sections of the show were apparently too many for the budget, so instead we see a cast of perhaps 25 actors singing-along to the pre-recorded voices of likely hundreds. It's like watching a baby lion meowing while big daddy is doing the real roaring off-stage. In other-words, awkward.

4) The natives - This, from what I could see in the website, is a largely Italian cast. As expected then, you have Italians playing Spanish, Portuguese, as well as a whole community of Guarani Indians. The first two nationalities I can deal with, but the last is hugely problematic. What we see from the get-go are white men and women in thong/loin cloth costumes and black wigs engaging in choreography that tries to serve two purposes: be authentic to the culture (if "authentic" means various forms of under-arm scratching and ooga-booga ground-slapping) and to do it all in formation - this is a musical after-all. Any audience member will see a fair amount of pale gluteus maximi jiggling-about the stage - led by the one larger fellow who inexplicably has much darker skin and is apparently therefore the Guarani king. Hey - I'm not saying that authentic Native South American tribesmen are easy to populate your new musical with, but this casting choice was tough for this audience member to swallow. It looked like a community theatre version of South Pacific. "Happy Talk", anyone?

5) The Characters and plot - most importantly for me, this show makes a huge mistake with its decision to reposition central characters. If you are a fan of the film, imagine for a second who might receive the final bow in a stage version of the same story: Father Gabriel? Rodrigo? The correct answer would be both. Here, Carlotta takes the final bow. Who?

In the film version, Carlotta serves only a a plot point to establish Rodrigo as someone who will come to seek redemption. Rodrigo's fiance, she falls in love with his brother instead, and Rodrigo kills him in a fit of rage. Carlotta cries, and she's gone. She may have all of two collective minutes of screen time - barely enough to get her ACTRA credit. Here, she's the lead and the story's narrator. It didn't have to be a terrible choice, but let's just say that things seemed to go a bit awry.

For one thing, her songs are not the high point of the show, and they should be. Much of her emotion seems out of place and, well, kind of distracting. This is a story about two men with different philosophies of religion and conflict. The show actually takes the film's greatest exchange away from the two characters meant to deliver it, and puts the dialogue into song for its new female lead.

"If might is right, then love has no place in the world. It may be so, it may be so. But I don't have the strength to live in a world like that, Rodrigo."

This is THE key moment in the story and it defines its two main characters. Gabriel wants to see the impending raid of his mission by Portuguese forces through with peaceful means, while Rodrigo, a former mercenary and slave-trader-turned-Jesuit, wants to have the village take-up arms in defense. It's Malcolm X and Dr. King and it sets the stage for the violence to come. As things go on stage, Carlotta takes this moment into song and the men seemingly discuss nothing - they just act. The film gave these ideas so much weight and quiet thought, that when the Portuguese come calling and each suffers a similar fate despite their differing philosophies, the tragedy is amplified. Opportunity wasted here.

Carlotta also has one more case of line-thievery which does a true disservice to the piece as a whole. After the abject slaughter of innocent lives at the mission, Altamirano, the visiting bishop who gave the go-ahead to move the Indians off the land, has the following exchange with Senor Hontar, a representative from the Spanish Council:

Hontar: We must work in the world, your eminence. The world is thus.
Altamirano: No, SeƱor Hontar. Thus have we made the world... thus have I made it.

The bishop takes responsibility for his actions - even if he shows a tad bit of hubris in doing so. Imagine the shift when Carlotta instead uses the line in accusation, and the bishop remains silent. What the hell was the script-writer thinking?

Anyway, blah, blah, blah...

But seriously, I don't think this show is going anywhere. And I'm not going to feel badly about being brutally honest about it to any of the 5 or so people who read this blog - not when my rabbit was so excited to see a show for which she paid roughly $150 per seat. Hey, folks - if this is a work in progress, let's be reasonable on the ticket prices, shall we? You're not Julie Taymor. I might suggest being a bit humble about an unproven product before charging so much. The performers did give it their all, but it was mostly in-vain as conceptually, this show was a mess.

The reaction from the Seoul audience on opening night was lukewarm at best. Intermission hit and there was a definite murmur of disappointment through the crowd. Apparently, E. Morricone was in Seoul, but decided to not take the stage at the end. I don't blame him. Neither though did his son, who composed the additional songs and musically directed the whole deal. This thing is supposed to run here for a month and then move on to Italy, London's West End, and eventually New York. I don't think so.

It's hard to be honest when your girlfriend spends sick amounts of money on a special night for something that, by its name alone, should be fantastic, but just fails. Once we stopped pussy-footing around the issue after the curtain-call and both admitted how shabby we both felt it was, we had a good laugh. Lesson learned though. For $150 a ticket, we'll wait for something to go from New York to Seoul instead of the other way around.


Cali said...

Looks like a great show!

;-) Just kidding... Thanks for warning us all, so I don't have to have the feeling that I have missed something essential. I was thinking myself all along, that it must be tough to put a story like that into a musical (No love-story, no homosexuals, no big dance-scenes, just religion, politics and jungle...).

Pre-recorded music? What good shall that do? The sense in watching a musical is mainly to see and hear all music live performed. I'm glad you lined out clearly that one should keep away of things like that.

Thank you for your honest report!

George Bailey Sees The World! said...

Yeah, big disappointment. There were many issues with this thing. I can't see it going anywhere at all, which is sad, but fitting. I think it's possible to make a decent musical out of any story, really. You just have to have the right people making the right choices at the right time.

Jeffery Donaldson, Tulsa said...

I read in your review an even-handedness, a fairness and objectivity that concerned me. Having purchased my ticket before reading your review, I hoped for a different experience of the new musical. I hoped my $130 was well-spent. I hoped--in vain. Saturday's matinee audience might have filled the theatre to 2/3 capacity, no more than that--I'm guessing it's a clear sign that this stage effort fails on too many levels for even the generous Korean audience (who love the senior composer). If I didn't know that the musical was a sort of "family affair" I would have thought it a sinister affront or an SNL spoof in various scenes, too often robbing the original story of its gut-wrenching horror and anguish. Also, was it my imagination that the Sejong sound system is sub-par, unable to do justice to the soundtrack, unable to support the highs/lows that have an uncommon power to haunt and stir the soul? I have the movie sound track and listen to it often. My home system sounds better than what I heard at Sejong--no kidding! Perhaps it was my seat, second row center of the first balcony, normally considered a very good seat. Essentially, I write in support of your review and in an effort to warn anyone undecided. At the curtain call (there was no standing ovation, no "Bravo", no 2nd curtain call--just the one curtain call, just one bow) even the cast seemed apologetic, self-conscious, releaved to be done with another show and eager to simply go away. How can this production last to the 26th of February? Like you, I want to be fair. It wasn't all bad, just mostly painfullly disappointing. So, I too want to acknowledge/credit Mr. Gatti's good voice and add to that an acknowledgement of the rich vocal quality of the Guarani male who opens Act II with a lovely acapella solo. Standing center stage with one yellow light cast upon him and nothing more to impress us. Yes, in the true spirit of the Guarani, the actor sang unaccompanied by any of the failings of the musical. It was my favorite moment and exemplifies your point about "less" being "more."

George Bailey Sees The World! said...

Thanks for your additional comments, Jeffery. I asked my girlfriend to scan the Korean sites for any reviews or blog postings to see what others are thinking. It's all pretty negative. A main Korean language newspaper here in Seoul gave a fairly scathing review and the comments section was as bad.

Apparently, after the universally bad reviews, tons of people started asking for refunds - so many that the ticket website actually crashed.

This thing might be out out of its misery sooner than the end of the month. I feel for those people on stage, because they are the ones that have to somehow feed off of an angry and disappointed audience. Sad.

Jin-roh said...

Damn, I was planning on seeing it this weekend. Looks like I am going to reconsider.

I think you just saved me about 80k Wan.

To bad, such a phenomenal film.

George Bailey Sees The World! said...

Jin-roh, yes - save yourself the cash. But, if you go, I do expect a review from you to posted here - or a link to one.