There is nothing new in creating a new musical by stringing together old pop songs. In fact, it's a pretty good idea from a financial viewpoint, on the theory that familiarity with the music will bring audiences to the theatre. Still, you can't just throw a bunch of pop songs together and get away with charging $65 for it. In order for it to work, the musical needs two things in addition to a strong set of pop songs: a workable plot and a kick-ass cast.
Mamma Mia! has the songs, the plot and the cast. First, the songs: 22 ABBA hits, as perky and poppy as they come. ABBA's catalogue also includes some touching ballads, which give the show a little variety. For the plot, Catherine Johnson has found the perfect vehicle: the wedding of a twenty-year-old, Sophie, who was raised by a single mother, Donna. Sophie wants her father to walk her down the aisle, but does not know who her father is. Finding her mother's diary, Sophie discovers three possible candidates, and invites them to the wedding behind her mother's back. Back in Donna's wild days, she was the leader of a girl band, "Donna and the Dynamos," and the two Dynamos also come to see Donna's daughter get married. It is an excellent plot on which to hang the ABBA songs, providing any possible combination of male/female, older/younger, or past/present that may be necessary for a song. Between Donna and backup singers, the three fathers, Sophie, her fiancee, and their friends, all the bases are covered and there is a built-in ensemble of young, energetic wedding guests. As a bonus, the book isn't wholly superficial, and briefly touches on such themes as finding one's identity, and one's true love.
The thirty-member cast takes the roof off the place. The performance I saw had ensemble member Monique Lund filling in for Louise Pitre as Donna, while ensemble member Lisa Kisch filled in for Tina Maddigan as Sophie. Both were terrific, and it shows the depth of this cast that these two ensemble members could carry the show this well. Lund and Kisch both have deeper, stronger voices than those preserved on the London cast recording, and they give this material a vocal intensity that seems lacking in that disc. The music might be light pop, but if you put a thirteen-member ensemble and hugely amplified band behind it, it demands power and these ladies have it.
More can be said about each individual element of Mamma Mia!, but to analyze this show is to miss its point: it's FUN. The show never takes itself too seriously, and is actively campy at times. The set is beautiful and timeless, helping to keep the show just slightly removed from reality. The choreography is energetic and playful. The direction is seamless, at its best moments moving from book to song just ahead of the audience. The plot gets the job done and the cast kicks ass. Don't ask questions, just surrender to it and get up and dance.
Judy Craymer, Richard East and Bjorn Ulvaeus for Littlestar in association with Universal and David & Ed Mirvish present Mamma Mia! Music and lyrics by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus and some songs with Stig Anderson, book by Catherine Johnson. Production designed by Mark Thompson, lighting designed by Howard Harrison, sound designed by Andrew Bruce & Bobby Aitken, musical supervisor, additional material & arrangements Martin Koch, choreography Anthony Van Laast, directed by Phyllida Lloyd.
Mamma Mia! runs through May 12, 2001 at the Shubert Theatre.