Mamma Mia! has spent over three years in both London and Toronto, many weeks in U.S. cities on two national tours, over a year in Australia, not to mention nearly a year on Broadway, and the show will open in Japan in December. With many of these appearances being virtually sold out, it would be difficult for anyone to dispute the commercial success of the show. The success is reinforced by witnessing the enthusiastic audience reaction in the theatre. But there are dissenting voices who, instead of dancing in the aisles and screaming along with the music, wish to flee up the aisles just plain screaming.
In Mamma Mia!, the songs came first, being hit releases by the '70s Swedish pop music group ABBA. Catherine Johnson has concocted a story which connects the previously unrelated songs, resulting in a cart-before-the-horse kind of musical, not unprecedented, but also not traditional.
The basics of the plot are that Sophie is a 20 year-old woman who lives on a Greek island with her mother, Donna, who is the owner of a modest hotel. Sophie does not know the identity of her father, but has recently discovered that he is one of three of her mother's former amours. Sophie decides to use the event of her wedding to draw the three possible dads to the island, certain that she will recognize her father when she sees him. Of course all three men show up, of course Sophie can't figure out which one is her father, and of course no one figures out what Sophie is up to until well into the second act. It matters little that the plot is thin as there is little dialogue and acting to do between songs (after all, there are 22 ditties to get through). In fact, by the second act, it seems the actors say only a couple of lines lines before launching into yet another song. To author Johnson's credit, the plot points fit the the songs quite well in most all instances, and it is an interesting discovery as each seemingly independent song reveals lyrics that are appropriate to the story.
Mamma Mia! comes at you big and loud, building on the "wall of sound" style of the music of ABBA. There are no solos or duets - singers' voices are constantly augmented by not only on stage chorus members' accompaniment, but the backing of unseen singers backstage in sound booths. This achieves the authentic driving sound of ABBA classics such as "Dancing Queen," "Honey, Honey," "S.O.S.," "Super Trouper," and the title song.
The set is sparse, but the costuming carries on the theme of "big and loud," from the most outlandish '70s outfits imaginable to bizarre blacklight-lit frogman costumes. Luckily, the sound in Heinz Hall was not overpowering during the two acts of the show, but the post curtain call megamix seems to be presented with the volume cranked up a few decibels. This post-show performance is a show within itself, with new choreography and costumes. After twenty-two ABBA songs, however, it exceeds excess.
In the role of Donna is Monique Lund, and she evokes the independent struggling businesswoman very well. Her voice is fabulous - the best of the cast. She brings a lot of credibility to this light show. Sophie is played by Kristie Marsden. Marsden is a very appealing young actress who can sing quite well, though she gets off to a slow start with her solo at the beginning of the show. Sophie's fiance, Sky, doesn't have much to do, but he's well played by Chris Bolan. The trio of "maybe dads" are played by Don Noble (Sam), Pearce Bunting (Bill), and James Kall (Harry). They all are adequate in their acting and singing, though one wishes for a better singing Sam in the songs "S.O.S." and "Knowing Me, Knowing You."
Comic relief is provided by Donna's two best friends, also visiting for the wedding. Donna, Rosie, and Tanya had a girl singing group 20-some years ago, a fact which offers a chance for the staging of several comical "encore performances" of the three "girls." The fact that they are no longer 20-something themselves is the source of many onstage gags and jokes. Rosie (Robin Baxter) is the funniest of the pair of buddies. Her role is written as the clown, and Baxter is a natural comedienne. She brings out the best in Bunting, as Bill and Rosie have several scenes together. Tanya (Ellen Harvey) is the many-times-married materialistic but sweet buddy who lusts after the young men on the island. The scenes between Harvey and J.P. Potter, who plays young barman Pepper, in which they flirt with each other seem awkward and the humor is not as well written or performed as that between Baxter and Bunting.
Mamma Mia! is a fluffy feel good musical. If you don't like ABBA, or if you like a dose of substance with your musicals, this may not be bearable. If you like to sit back and be entertained by an energetic feast for the ears and eyes, if not the mind, bring your platform shows and dance in the aisles.
Cast: Kristie Marsden, Bethany Pagliolo, Elana Ernst, Ellen Harvey, Robin Baxter, Monique Lund, Chris Bolan, J.P. Potter, Tommar Wilson, James Kall, Pearce Bunting, Don Noble, Tim Ewing.