Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
The Aronoff Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, is the latest venue to host the throng of 40 to 50 year old closeted ABBA fans having the time of their lives as audience members of the new musical Mamma Mia! Structured around the well-known songs of the late 1970s super-group, the musical (in this, its second national tour) may be thin on plot and character development, but it delivers fun-filled performances and familiar tunes that produce a very entertaining show.
The story of the show is fairly simple. 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 that 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 must be recognized up-front as mainly 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. The show never takes itself too seriously, so the audience is relaxed and ready to enjoy the many funny moments. 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. It would be unfair to judge the tunes by Benny Andersson and Bjorn 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 tunes 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.
A large asset to this production is the fine cast. As Donna, Monique Lund appears at home as both the strong, independent woman and the stressed out mother of the bride. She also displays fine singing in this leading role. Despite some minor vocal miscues, Kristie Marsden turns in one of the show's best performances and is appropriately bubbly and endearing as Sophie. Ellen Harvey and Robin Baxter (as Tonya and Rosie respectively) are hilariously over-the-top. The male characters here are less developed, but Chris Bolan (Sky), James Kall (Harry), Pearce Bunting (Bill), and Don Noble (Sam) make the most out of the material they have. All of the main performers do extremely well in the acting department, giving needed depth to characters that could easily come off as paper-thin. They also handle the musical requirements of the show skillfully. The remaining members of the ensemble provide likewise satisfactory performances.
Director Phyllida Lloyd deserves credit for keeping an appropriately fun tone and quick pace, while also emphasizing the music and silliness of the show. However, the decision to have an off-stage chorus join in about one-third the way through almost every song seems relentless and grows tiresome quickly. The choreography by Anthony Van Laast is suitable and enjoyable, if not overly imaginative.
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. Attractive costumes are also supplied by Thompson.
The Broadway production of Mamma Mia! is currently selling to full capacity and it is one of the four Best Musical nominees for the Tony Awards to be presented in June. Though it is likely to lose the prize to either Urinetown or Thoroughly Modern Millie, there is no denying that this show will continue to thrive in New York and on tour.
Mamma Mia! is far from groundbreaking theater. An in-depth, critical analysis reveals many flaws. None of this matters, though, as this musical doesn't aspire to such lofty goals. Rather, it strives to be a fun, humorous, and thoroughly entertaining show featuring nostalgic ABBA songs. And it succeeds wonderfully. The show continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati through June 2, 2002. To order tickets, please call (800) 294-1816.