Such was the beginning of one of the world's most enduring pop groups, ABBA.
Flash forward twenty-five years and 350 million sold records later to April 6, 1999 and the premiere of Mamma Mia! at London's Prince Edward Theatre. The musical, based on and featuring the songs of ABBA, receives rave reviews and becomes an instant smash. London goes crazy for Mamma Mia!. ABBA record sales go through the roof once again and the media labels the ABBA mania as a revival.
But it's not a revival. The truth of the matter is that ABBA never went away. It's a testament to the enduring popularity of the music that ABBA has stuck around this long. Mamma Mia!, it seems, was a calculated excuse for the media and the public to sing "Here we go again!" and take a nostalgic trip down memory lane.
But what an excuse it is.
After a year of sold-out performances across the pond, the smash hit phenomenon that is Mamma Mia! made its North American debut at Toronto's Royal Alexandra Theatre on May 23, 2000. The show - as Londoners had already known - is a sensation. It's got every right to be a smash hit.
The monumental success of the show confirms not only our love affair with those infectious songs, from "Dancing Queen" to "The Winner Takes It All," but also the fact the music is universal and cross-generational in its appeal, as is the show itself.
Mamma Mia! is fun. It's a tongue-in-cheek musical that knows it's a tongue-in-cheek musical. It glorifies the kitsch that was ABBA, in its set-up of their songs, in its camp staging, and in its honest, poignant moments. In other words, you laugh, you cry, you enjoy yourself. And that's all there is to it. It's a light musical romp. Any attempt to analyze it as anything else would result in a brain hemorrhage.
What Catherine Johnson has done is ingenious. She has taken some of the most theatrically-inclined pop songs (22 of them), and has created a story around them. If you didn't know any better, it seems like the songs were created for the story. It's seamless in its setup. And it's also shameless. But that's okay in the context of this cheeky show. The audience is in on the joke as much as the cast and the creative team are. That's why Ms. Johnson and her director, Phyllida Lloyd, have given much legroom in the story to accommodate the occasional unnecessary ABBA hit.
The fun part about Mamma Mia! is that it keeps the audience guessing (the program lists the songs in alphabetical order, as opposed to chronological order). As soon as the curtain rises, you know that they're going to throw the ABBA songs your way in an unpredictable fashion, and it's up to you to keep alert and listen for the clues to the cues.
The story takes place on a mythical Greek island in the present day, and centers around a young girl named Sophie who dreams of a white wedding, with her father giving her away at the altar. Problem is, she doesn't know who her dad is - and she's getting married the next day. As the show begins, she explains to her chums that her mum, Donna, fell into the arms of three men within a short space of time. So she's got three possible dads. She knows this because she read her mum's diary (funny, I thought it's usually the other way around).
Sophie's mum, a taverna hostess, used to front a rock chick band called "Donna and the Dynamos." Her former bandmates - Rosie and Tanya - show up for the wedding, and so do the three possible dads (Mamma Mia!). This becomes a dilemma with Donna, who's had her heart broken by one of the men, in that of all days for them to show up, it had to be on the eve of a happy occasion. Sophie, however, goes on trying to figure out who's who, and by the end of the first act, she has developed a dilemma of her own.
The second act is more emotional. Donna confronts her past, Sophie deals with her dilemma, and everything is resolved quite nicely, with the show ending rather low key. The finale is sweet and poignant enough to bring a tear to the eye.
Louise Pitre plays the feisty forty-something Donna, the mum and taverna hostess in the show. The silver-maned sweet-faced musical theatre veteran - one of Toronto theatre's best-kept secrets - gives the performance of her life. In the first half of the show, she's like a teenaged girl trapped in a forty-year-old's body. She's casually dressed in denim overalls, with one strap undone, and she's oozing vibrant energy. Her silver hair is the only indication of her age. The way she gets up there and sings "Dancing Queen" and "Super Trouper" with her rambunctious energy and enthusiasm gives a strong case that her contemporaries shouldn't act their age, but how they feel.
Ms. Pitre is absolutely irresistible. When her heart breaks, your heart breaks as well. When she launches into "The Winner Takes It All," her glorious voice booms over the sound system and hits you, and you're moved. Tears begin to well up in the eyes. It's unlike any rendition of the song ever heard - more direct, more emotional, more honest, and more thrilling.
The rest of the all-Canadian cast is superb.
Tina Maddigan as Sophie is sweet and lovable. It's easy to play her character as a ditz, but she avoids that and manages to make Sophie a mature and sensible 20-year-old. Adam Brazier plays her love interest, Sky, the handy help at Donna's taverna. They both have wonderful voices, although their parts are shy of richer characterizations.
As Donna's former bandmates - Rosie and Tanya - Mary Ellen Mahoney and Gabrielle Jones are hilarious.
Tanya is a spoiled divorced woman who was previously married to a couple of rich guys, and she arrives on the island in a designer suit, with her hair perfectly pouffed, and her fingernails perfectly manicured. Ms. Mahoney plays Tanya like Carol Burnett played Ms. Hannigan in the film version of Annie - a little bit clutzy, a little bit sarcastic, and a little bit goofy. Her Tanya also is reminiscent of Fran Drescher in TV's The Nanny. She seems a bit like a smartass lady, but she caps off her comments with a funny nasally laugh that tears down that image. She has to peel the fingers of male suitors off of her extended hand, and has a great put-down number in "Does Your Mother Know."
Her other chum, Rosie, is the bookwormish type. A cookbook writer, she's the no-frills member of the group, having a certain hatred for men. She's a bit vulgar and sarcastic, and I guess it fits her profile, if she is a man-hater. She gets a wonderful song in "Take A Chance On Me," in which she becomes enamoured with Bill, one of Sophie's possible dads, and seduces him in the church pews.Gary P. Lynch, David Mucci, and Lee MacDougall are fine as Sam, Bill, and Harry, the three possible dads. Sam Carmichael is the most serious looking among the three, and the most likely to be Sophie's dad. Bill and Harry seem unlikely, although in the end, without resorting to a blood test, there is a nice little resolution to the matter of who's dad that isn't exactly satisfying, but good enough.
Mark Thompson's designs are handsome. The colour scheme of the set is that of a paradise island, with its tans and aqua blue colour scheme. The tiled stage has a curving pathway embedded in the center that rises out of the deck to create a beach boardwalk. The main elements of the set are the two sun-baked walls that move and reconfigure to create a taverna, a post office, an exterior setting, and an open stage.
The costumes are simple: the young 20-somethings on stage wear the fashionable stuff like beige khaki pants, khaki jackets, Hawaiian shirts, shorts, denims… stuff you'd find at the Gap. And yes, there are the white lycra flamenco jumpsuits that Donna and the Dynamos trot out of the closet to wear at Sophie's hen night.
The choreography by Anthony Van Laast is kitschy, though surprisingly subdued. There were some opportunities for great choreographic moments, like in the underwater nightmare sequence, "Under Attack," complete with glo-in-the-dark Scuba divers. Lighting by Howard Harrison is heavy: scenes are drenched, such as a deliriously strong purple (in "Voulez-Vous"), or a nightmarish green (in "Under Attack").
The rousing curtain call sequence literally shakes the theatre with the audience singing and dancing in the aisles of the historic Royal Alexandra Theatre, and even if it's just for the joyous curtain call, Mamma Mia! must not be missed. Just like the 17-year old girl in the song "Dancing Queen," the audience is having the time of their lives.
Music and lyrics by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, and some songs with Stig Anderson. Book by Catherine Johnson. Directed by Phyllida Lloyd. Choreography by Anthony Van Laast. Production designed by Mark Thompson; lighting by Howard Harrison; musical supervisor, additional material & arrangements by Martin Koch. Produced by Judy Craymer, Richard East and Björn Ulvaeus for Littlestar in association with Universal and David & Ed Mirvish. At the Royal Alexandra Theatre, 260 King Street West, Toronto.
WITH: Louise Pitre (Donna Sheridan), Gary P. Lynch (Sam Carmichael), Tina Maddigan (Sophie Sheridan), Adam Brazier (Sky), Gabrielle Jones (Rosie), Mary Ellen Mahoney (Tanya), Lee MacDougall (Harry Bright), David Mucci (Bill Austin), Miku Graham (Lisa), Nicole Fraser (Ali), Nicholas Dromard (Eddie), and Sal Scozzari (Pepper).
Previews from May 11, 2000. North American Premiere May 23, 2000. Open-ended run at The Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto. Call (416) 872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333. www.mirvish.com
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