An e-Mask-ulated Musical

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

The stage has a long tradition of disfigured protagonists. Shakespeare's Richard III is the embodiment of a character whose hunchback is a metaphor for internal wickedness, whereas Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac is the model for characters whose unnatural face betrays a heroic soul. This tradition also extends to musical drama (from Rigoletto to Phantom of the Opera) which would seem to suggest that there is historical precedent and even potential for a Broadway-style adaptation of the 1985 film Mask.

Starring Cher and a young (not to mention unrecognizable) Eric Stoltz, Mask was a surprise hit. The film told a matter-of-fact story about a single mother with a drug habit whose son happened to have a rare disease (Craniodiaphyseal dysplasia) that morphed him from a normal baby into a teenager whose face was grossly enlarged and distorted.

Based on a true Southern California family, the movie effectively used the character's disfigurement to dramatize both the awkwardness of being a teenager and the intense love that a mother feels for her son.

mask_poster.jpgThe musical version, which received its world premiere last month at the Pasadena Playhouse, reunites two of the collaborators from the film: writer Anna Hamilton Phelan and makeup artist Michael Westmore (who received the Best makeup Oscar for the filmed Mask). Not surprisingly, the way Rocky Dennis looks and much of what he says is exactly the same as in the film.

Little attempt seems to have been made to rethink this story for the stage or for a new century; and many of the changes Phelan makes to the script—like adding a funeral and wedding in the second half—are lame attempts to wring even more sentiment out of a show that already teeters on after-school special-ness.

maskB032.jpg The worst thing about this Mask, well the second worst thing, is that Phelan changes Rocky Dennis from being a normal teenager trapped inside a deformed body to being a sort of saint-like, inspirational Christ figure.

The truly worst thing is the music. This is not to say that the songs by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil are ugly or unlistenable; quite the contrary. A few of the songs could be platinum top 40 hits—had they been recorded back in 1985.

maskC199.jpg Mann and Weil are accomplished songwriters, but none of their work here in Mask serves to build drama or character. What's more, the numbers all seem to be stuck in the adult-contemporary idiom of their Oscar-nominated song, "Somewhere Out There," from the animated film, An American Tail. This could have worked well had the creative team decided to make this an ironic 80's period piece; but there's another problem: Rocky Dennis was a Springsteen fan and his mom, Rusty, was a biker chick. It's highly unlikely that any of Mask's denim-and-leather-clad characters would have had their dial set to Lite FM, so why are these bikers and prostitutes singing ballads that should have been sung by Peabo Bryson or Linda Rondstat.

mask_cast.jpg The actors playing Rusty and Rocky, Michelle Duffy and Allen E. Read, have good voices, so their songs at least sound pleasant even if they are uninteresting to listen to. Greg Evigan, of TV's B.J. and the Bear fame, is less impressive than his co-stars and has none of the machismo that Sam Elliot brought to the role of Gar in the movie. Robert Brill's set nicely silhouettes the palm trees and power lines of L.A.'s suburbs, but the overall professionalism of this production is no consolation. A showy facade with little complexity underneath is an odd, if not opposite, tribute to the real Rocky Dennis.

Mask: A New Musical runs at the Pasadena Playhouse through Sunday.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

Photos: Ed Krieger