REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
I saw Theater League’s national touring company’s production of Mamma Mia! this week and although the production itself was virtually flawless, I still walk away with the nagging question, “Why has this show been such a huge hit?” Mamma Mia!, with its score of songs from the catalog of ’70s supergroup ABBA, has been a solid hit on Broadway since 2001 in a run that has now crossed the 5,000 performance mark. Its success has sparked a mini-industry of similarly constructed shows based on the song catalogs of pop music performers. The success of Mamma Mia!’s progeny has ranged from spectacular (Jersey Boys) to mediocre (All Shook Up). The acclaim accorded to Jersey Boys, which documents the career of Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons, resulted in subsequent shows to be mini-biographies of the artists. The latest incarnation of this is Beautiful, a show celebrating the life of singer/songwriter Carole King, which made its Broadway debut this week to tepid reviews.
But the whole idea of the so-called “jukebox musical” formula (or, as some label it “pop-sicals”) began with Mamma Mia! British playwright Catherine Johnson came up with the flimsy story of twenty-year-old Sophie Sheridan and her single mother Donna, who live on a Greek island where Donna runs a tavern. Sophie is about to marry her hunky boyfriend Sky, but having discovered her mother’s diary, wants to find out the identity of her real father, who flew the coop before she was born. The diary reveals three possible dads: hunky Sam, cerebral Bill, and stuffy Brit Harry. She invites all to the wedding without telling her mother, setting off fireworks in a variety of directions. It took a massive shoehorn to force all of the songs into this far-fetched plot, and a lot of the fun in the show is to see how badly the songs fit in.
Mamma Mia! perverts the usual way Broadway shows are written, in which songs are composed in conjunction with the action they are describing. Rodgers and Hammerstein revolutionized the way musicals were written back in 1943 when they wrote Oklahoma!, acknowledged as the first and most influential of the so-called integrated musicals (some argue that Show Boat did it first in 1928). In Mamma Mia!, the songs had already been written and the story had to be written around them without changing their lyrics. Fortunately, ABBA’s lyrics are all mere trifles, and generic enough to fit into most situations, but the effect still sounds forced at best, but mostly ludicrous.
As it turns out, the songs are the best parts of the show. The outlandish storyline features inspid dialog (“You’ve got your whole life ahead of you” – “It doesn’t always end happily ever after,” etc.) and stereotypical, one-dimensional characters. You have Donna, the independent single mom, and her two gal pals: Tanya, the man-hungry cougar, and Rosie, the stoutish, saucy one, a vacuous groom-to-be, oversexed bartenders, and assorted cardboard cutout others. The sniggering humor is laced with high school-styled infantile sexual innuendo, with snarky PG-13 rated jokes about lap dancing and mud wrestling. The choreography features lots of suggestive poses and hip-twisting calisthenics, but nothing resembling dancing. The show has no drama or conflict and we really don’t care how the story comes out. There is no antagonist; every character is likable, attractive, and seemingly without a care in the world, except for Sophie’s familial angst. All that is left is the score, which percolates perkily through nearly two dozen of ABBA’s most tuneful hits.
Fortunately, Theater League’s cast understands that the show isn’t to be taken seriously and does a fabulous job working with what they are given. As Donna, frizzy-haired Georgia Kate Haege looks like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction without the psychosis. Chelsea Williams is perfect as Sophie, with an attractive exuberance that is as charming as it is infectious. Gabrielle Mirabella shows that she studied Christine Baranski’s performance as Tanya in the movie version of the show while Carly Sakolove is funny as the zaftig Rosie, whose best scene is her seduction of the reluctant Bill (Michael Colavolpe) in the ridiculous “Take a Chance On Me.” Don Winsor does a fine job as Sam, and exhibits an excellent singing voice in his solo, “Knowing Me, Knowing You.” Mark A. Harmon only exhibits a wisp of a English accent in his performance as Harry, but he has great comic timing and plays his part well.
In the end, it’s the songs that carry the show. The Civic Arts Plaza audience was more subdued than audiences that usually come see this show. Most are probably season-ticket holding subscribers of an older demographic, so there wasn’t as much dancing in the aisles as there was nodding and moving in place; certainly none of the cultish hooting usually associated with the show.
Mamma Mia! will never be considered a Broadway classic, but one can’t argue with success, and as long as you take it for the campy fun that it is, you will have a good time.
Mamma Mia! concludes its run at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza on Sunday.