Though this is the third time Mamma Mia! has played Cincinnati this decade, the show's fan base has likely expanded significantly, thanks to the successful film adaptation that premiered last year. With the show still running strong on Broadway (it's now the 14th longest running musical ever on the Great White Way) and new interest based on the movie, there's little doubt that the tour, which has been ongoing since 2000, will continue to thrive. The current cast is talented and provides solid and worthwhile performances of this fun and entertaining piece.
Mamma Mia! is a fairly simple and straightforward story. Twenty-year-old Sophie is set to marry boyfriend Sky in her Greek Island hometown. The bride-to-be has been raised by her mother Donna without knowing 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-bandmates, 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 Mamma Mia! 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. The show never takes itself too seriously, so not a lot is expected and most of the very funny moments land. Dialogue is cleverly mixed into the songs to help 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 songs by the Andersson and Ulvaeus (with additional songs credited to Stig Anderson) come quickly one after another, and their catchy melodies are a delight to 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. Bill Congdon leads a nine-piece band in pumping out the appropriate and festive orchestrations provided by Martin Koch.
As Donna, Michelle Dawson is a husky-voiced, tough-as-nails independent woman and stressed out mother of the bride. Though she sings capably and makes many fine acting choices, she lacks the spark that a leading performer in this caliber of show should possess. Liana Hunt shines as Sophie, and gives the bride-to-be a well-grounded earthy and frantic quality well-suited to the role. Rachel Tyler (Tonya) and Kittra Wynn Coomer (Rosie) are hilarious as Donna's former all-girl band mates. While the male characters here are less developed, Adam Jacobs (Sky), Michael Roberts McKee (Harry), Martin Kildare (Bill) and John Hemphill (Sam) make the most out of the material they have, especially in the comedic moments. The remaining members of the ensemble 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.
Mamma Mia! simply strives to be a comedic showcase for the lively and catchy ABBA songs that make up its score, and it succeeds wonderfully. Both the five-year-old seated to my left and the fifty-something seated to my right obviously knew every song and loved every minute of it. You probably will too. The show continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati through July 19, 2009. To order tickets, please call (800) 294-1816.