Mamma Mia! Music and lyrics by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus. Book by Catherine Johnson. Directed by Phyllida Lloyd. Choreography by Anthony Van Laast. Production designed by Mark Thompson. Lighting designed by Howard Harrison. Sound designed by Andrew Bruce and Bobby Aitken. Cast: Louise Pitre, David W. Keeley, Tina Maddigan, Joe Machota, Judy Kaye, Karen Mason, Ken Marks, Dean Nolen, Tonya Doran, Sara Inbar, Mark Price, Michael Benjamin Washington.
In terms of theatre, Mamma Mia!, which opened last night at the beautifully refurbished Winter Garden, has little to offer. The book by Catherine Johnson is paper thin, silly, and occasionally trouble in its story of twenty year-old Sophie (Tina Maddigan), about to marry Sky (Joe Machota), but who does not know who her father is. All she knows is that her mother, Donna (Louise Pitre), had flings with three men (Dean Nolen, Ken Marks, and David W. Keeley) over the summer of 1979. So, she does what any daughter would do and invites all three men to her wedding without telling her mother. Equally naturally, they come. That's about the extent of the setup of the show. There are a few predictable subplots, but little additional story. Most of the book's jokes and tension come not from the characters or the story, but rather from seeing exactly how it will set up the songs.
Then again, that's primarily what most people who go to see Mamma Mia! will be interested in - they want to see and hear ABBA's songs performed live. In this way, the show does not disappoint. The songs, written by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus with some help from Stig Anderson, are almost all so familiar ("Dancing Queen," "Chiquitita," "Money, Money, Money," the title song, etc.) that you probably know most (if not all) of them already. That's a good thing, too, since the sound design, by Andrew Bruce and Bobby Aitken, is so poor that most of the lyrics - especially in the group numbers - are rendered unintelligible. Equally as luckily, the volume is so high most of the time, you won't notice.
Even so, the songs are the true stars of the show, outshining anyone in the cast. That said, most of the performers are a mixed bag, with some decent (Machota, Nolen, Marks, and Keeley), some slightly more (Maddigan), and some a fair amount less (just about everyone else). Judy Kaye and Karen Mason though, in their small supporting roles, almost get the better of the music. When these abundantly talented professionals take center stage, especially in their big numbers in the second act, the show develops a different energy that is noticeably lacking the rest of the time. Their consummate experience and showmanship allow them to mostly overcome the deficiencies in the material that trap almost everyone else, and they look like they're having the best time in the world doing it.
Less can be said of Pitre in her far more significant role. Her dramatic range and vocal capabilities appear limited, and her performance spends most of the show hovering between annoyed and angry. What little success she has in putting across her songs, including her would-be showstopper, "The Winner Takes It All," comes primarily from the score, and the almost self-deprecating way the songs are shoehorned into the book. Her inadequacies become more painfully clear when teamed with Kaye and Mason; the book wants us to believe their three characters once formed a rock group, but it is difficult to imagine such a group functioning with Pitre's Donna at its center.
Perhaps the majority of the show's problems can be attributed to director Phyllida Lloyd who, in addition to frequently turgid handling of the show's book scenes, provides no unifying voice. Most of the performers seem to be in different plays, but Anthony Van Laast's minimalist and repetitive choreography and Mark Thompson's unengaging and occasionally confusing production design suggest a similar problem gripped the creative team as well. Only Howard Harrison's lighting seems truly appropriate.
Still, the legions of ABBA fans who attend Mamma Mia! aren't going to care about much of this. They will doubtlessly have a great time, from the first strains of the overture to the final notes of the show's eardrum-pounding musical conclusion. They, like the production team, will care little about the non-musical elements in between, and may well walk away proclaiming Mamma Mia! one of the best shows they've ever seen. They will have gotten their ABBA concert.
Theatregoers expecting a solid, theatrical show will have gotten far less.