Also see Gil's review of Driving Miss Daisy
After a hugely successful London production, Mamma Mia! started previews in October of 2001, just a few weeks after the September 11th terrorist attacks. The feel good nature of the show was what New York needed at that moment, and the production has become the 10th longest running show in Broadway history, playing over 5,000 performances.
The plot is fairly simple. In Greece, a young woman named Sophie is engaged to be married but doesn't know exactly who her father is. She knows her mother dated three different men around the time she was conceived, so Sophie invites all three of them to the wedding without her mother's knowledge, in hopes of finding out who her father is, have him walk her down the aisle, and hopefully rekindle his feelings for her mother. Romance, hilarity and dancing ensue, to the thumping beat of over 20 ABBA songs, before the happy conclusion.
I never saw the show on Broadway but I did see it in London shortly after it opened there, and I never got what all of the excitement was about. To me, it just felt like a lot of familiar pop songs shoe-horned into a very basic plot. But I guess the upbeat story, the feel good nature of the show, and the familiar songs are what propelled this musical to world-wide hit status (besides continued runs on Broadway and in London, there have been productions in fourteen languages in just about every country around the world, including Japan and Russia).
I'm not sure if time has softened me, if the slightly Americanized version of the script makes it more enjoyable for me, or if I was just in a bad mood those many years ago in London, but I actually quite enjoyed myself at the performance of the national tour I recently attended. A lot of it may have to do with this cast, which is excellent, more fleshed out, more realistic and less one dimensional than the cast I saw in London.
Georgia Kate Haege is Donna, the mother of Sophie, played by Chelsea Williams. They both are very good in their roles, especially Haege who easily tackles the part of a woman who gave up on love after having her heart broken. I like how determined Williams is to find her father but also how timid and scared she becomes once her plan starts to come to life and the reality of the results is in front of her. They both easily handle the wide range of ABBA songs in the show, from soft pop ballads like "I Have a Dream" and "The Name of the Game" for Williams, to show-stopping classics like "The Winner Takes It All" which Haege turns into an emotional story song. Haege is also charming and touching when she sings "Slipping Through My Fingers" as Williams is getting dressed for the wedding.
As Donna's two best friends Tanya and Rosie, Gabrielle Mirabella and Carly Sakolove are having a grand time. Along with Haege, the three instantly come across as best friends who have known each other for over twenty years. I especially enjoyed Mirabella and Sakolove's comedic abilities which they put to good use throughout the show. The three ladies also get to sing some of the biggest ABBA hits, like "Dancing Queen," and their version of "Super Trouper" is a winner, with superb harmonies from the three ladies.
The three possible fathers, Don Winsor as Sam, Michael Colavolpe as Bill and Mark A. Harmon as Harry, are nicely interwoven into the story, with each having a nice amount of things to do. They are all extremely charming in their scenes with Williams, especially as the idea of fatherhood takes root. Winsor easily tackles the role of a man who has never forgotten the woman he loved, and he has no problem delivering two of ABBA's biggest hits, "S.O.S." and "Knowing Me, Knowing You." Colavolpe and Sakolove have a very charming and funny duet of "Take a Chance on Me."
While the ensemble cast might get less stage time than ensembles in other shows, due to the large number of lead parts and the story that has to unfold among them, they serve as back-up and provide harmonizing vocals on almost every song in the show, so they get plenty of offstage performance time. And, while they are very good singers, the "Voulez-Vous" dance that ends act one is a knock out, with some of the best ensemble dancing you'll see anywhere.
Phyllida Lloyd directed the show in London, on Broadway and on the tour as well as the 2008 film adaptation. While the film's use of locations in Greece is very much missed here, Lloyd tackles the task of making this show more than just characters singing a succession of hit pop songs from thirty years ago. She succeeds by having the characters be completely sincere and acting, not just singing, many of the more important lyrics. I was surprised at how many of the lyrics are inherently theatrical, which makes them flow more naturally from the script by Catherine Johnson. And, while Johnson isn't as successful with the six or so songs that are truly shoe-horned into the show and make very little sense, her dialogue around the songs makes each character unique.
Mark Thompson's production design is downsized somewhat for the tour but he manages with just two large movable set pieces to get across a peaceful Greek island location. His costumes are also well done, especially in how character focused they are. Donna is introduced as a disheveled woman who is trying to run an inn by herself, dressed simply in a pair of oversized and undone overalls; Tanya is a sleek jet-setter with very short skirts and hair perfectly in place; and the three fathers are all instantly recognizable as well, based on their professions, especially Bill, the adventure travel book writer who is wearing camouflage gear. While the costumes might be a bit cookie cutter and stereotypical, they easily and quickly identify each character. Howard Harrison's lighting design is beautiful, with the use of coral blue, tan and pink to show the various times of day on the island and a lovely image of the moon shining down on the proceedings.
Is Mamma Mia! a great musical? No, as about half of the ABBA songs don't make complete sense in the context they are used. However, many of them do fit nicely into the plot, so there is enough to make it enjoyable. The sincerity in the script and the ability of the cast to not turn the whole affair into a karaoke or camp affair are what really make it rise above many other jukebox musicals. It might not be a perfect musical, but with a winning cast and a thumping disco beat Mamma Mia! is fun and infectious.
Mamma Mia! runs through January 5th at ASU Gammage located at 1200 S. Forest Avenue in Tempe. Tickets can be purchased at www.asugammage.com or by calling 480 965-3434. For more information on the tour, visit www.mammamiaontour.com/mm/.
Music and Lyrics by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus