Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Sometimes, once is enough! When Mamma Mia! first graced the footlights of The Aronoff Center in Cincinnati, Ohio just over two years ago, it seemed like a fresh and extremely entertaining show. Now, during its return engagement, the show still manages to entertain, but the singing is meeker, the jokes more predictable, and the magic chemistry of the cast is in shorter supply. This musical structured around the well-known songs of the 1970s super-group ABBA is thin on plot and character development to begin with, and without the fun and sparkle brought by the previous cast, it is a disappointing production in comparison.
Mamma Mia! is a simple story. Twenty-year-old Sophie is set to marry her sweetheart Sky in her Greek Island hometown. The bride-to-be has been raised by her mother Donna without knowledge of who her father is. Donna is an independent spirit who gave up a career as the lead singer in a female pop trio to settle down and run the island hotel. Sophie, after reading entries in her mother's diary, sends wedding invitations to the three men who could possibly be her dad. As the wedding day approaches, the three potential fathers arrive on the island, as well as Donna's ex-band mates, Tanya and Rosie. While Donna deals with the stress of seeing these men from her past, Sophie attempts to determine which one is her dad, so he can walk her down the aisle.
The book for this show is merely a framework to show off the famous ABBA songs. The story by Catherine Johnson succeeds greatly in providing almost non-stop humor via numerous sight gags, high camp, decent one liners, and comical predicaments. It never takes itself too seriously, so not a lot is expected and most of the very funny moments land. The interspersion of dialogue during songs also helps to clarify and ground many of the lyrics. However, some lines sound like sitcom rejects and several plot holes exist. The overall storytelling is harmed further by the lack of plot advancement by the songs, especially in the somewhat laborious first half of act two.
It would be unfair to judge the tunes by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus by musical theater standards since they weren't written for this purpose. But the lyrics do make many songs seem pigeonholed into the story and there is a heavy reliance on accompanying dialogue to show the significance of the material within the book. Luckily, the music by the Andersson and Ulvaeus (with additional songs credited to Stig Anderson) come quickly one after another, and their catchy melodies fill the theater to the pleasing delight of the vast majority of those in attendance. "Dancing Queen," "Our Last Summer," "The Winner Takes It All," "The Name of the Game," and "Take A Chance On Me" are just some of the twenty-two well known hits from the ABBA catalogue heard within the show. Martyn Axe leads an eight-piece band in pumping out the appropriate and festive orchestrations provided by Martin Koch.
As Donna, Lauren Mufson lacks authenticity at times as the independent yet frantic mother of the bride. Her singing only occasionally impresses. Sara Kramer is appropriately spunky as Sophie, but again is hit or miss vocally. As Donna's longtime friends, Lori Haley Fox (Tanya) and E. Faye Butler (Rosie) milk their comedic material for all the laughs possible and are steady performers throughout. Jared Zeus (Sky), Timothy Booth (Harry - understudy), Milo Shandel (Bill), and Tony Clements (Sam) are the primary male performers, and while all of them seem game for their stereotypical (and underwritten) roles, they don't add much to flesh them out. The chorus performers bring dynamic energy to their performances.
Director Phyllida Lloyd deserves credit for keeping an appropriately light tone and quick pace while also emphasizing the music and silliness of the show. The choreography by Anthony Van Laast is suitable and enjoyable.
Mamma Mia! is designed surprisingly simplistically. Mark Thompson provides a small yet serviceable two-piece set and other smaller props and modular pieces are altered slightly to change the location of the island settings. The lighting by Howard Harrison sometimes evokes the maritime locale and is bold and splashy during the performance numbers. Thompson also supplies the festively campy costumes.
Tickets to the Broadway production of Mamma Mia! recently showed up at the TKTS half-price booth for the first time ever, showing that this top selling show might have to fight for audience members in the near future. On the road, Mamma Mia! may also have seen better days, especially for audiences who have already seen the show before. Sometimes, twice is one too many. The show played at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati from August 3 - 8, 2004.-- Scott Cain