note: entire contents copyright 2001 by Carl A. Rossi
Though billed as a musical, MAMMA MIA! is really an Event: a showcase celebration of the songs of ABBA, the phenomenally successful pop/disco group of the 1970s that you either loved or hated. This Event will undoubtedly make audiences happy with its sunniness and feel-good prodding, and I had fun and wish it well. There is much singing and enough dancing --- but a musical it is not.
The plot (and characters) are comic-book simple: Sophie, a present-day bride-to-be living on a Greek island with her mother Donna, wants her father to walk her down the aisle on her wedding day. The problem is, Sophie doesn't know who he is (Donna, being a 70s child, never told her). But when Sophie finds the names and addresses of three of Donna's former lovers, she invites the unsuspecting trio a burly Australian, a gentle Englishman and a cynical American for a visit in the hopes of finding out which one she can truly call "Dad". Of course, three blood tests would make for a very short show and thus there is much circling about until the final denouement though it becomes fairly obvious which man Donna will reunite with.
Does MAMMA MIA! work? Yes and no. The ABBA songs (by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus) are still enjoyable (even though listening to 22 of them exposes the never-ending sameness of their music), but shoehorning what were/will always be disco songs into a conventional libretto flattens many of them out especially if the audience cannot dance to the beat and now must listen to the lyrics (for once). Not surprisingly, the numbers that work best are those performed simply as ABBA numbers, to clap along and cheer over. There are clever bits and cheeky invention throughout: the heads of the chorus popping up like peas in a pod to chant "Mamma Mia! Here I go again!"; the revelation of Donna and two old friends as a former girl-group to justify their doing a knock-out "Dancing Queen"; and "Take a Chance on Me" as a duet between a predatory female and a marriage-shy male. Other songs are stillborn in their new surroundings and should be replaced by newer, more appropriate material but that would defeat the purpose of this Event, which is ABBA, and audiences are coming to remember the old, not to greet the new....
In a large cast, Dee Hoty (Donna) stands out with her strong singing voice and wounded presence, especially in her "Winner Takes It All" which becomes a true anthem of pain and loss and, for once, the heart is actually touched. But throughout the show I couldn't tell if the cast was lip-synching or not the lush, plastic ABBA sound is there, all right, but how many of the ensembles are being piped in?
Stay for the curtain calls, which become a joyous interaction between cast and audience, when the strobe lights are going full force and ABBA in all its glory truly lives again.
I can't predict what "legs" MAMMA MIA! will have in terms of college and community theatre, but its infectious songs are still worth hearing, even in this context.