Mamma Mia is all about the music of ABBA, the beloved Swedish band that had hit after danceable hit, and it's still a favorite with many who long for the days before grunge, complaint rock, and over-produced music that feels gimmicky, and, well, not so fun. The music and lyrics are by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, but we know the music from the voices of Agnetha and Anni-Frid—the Swedish songbirds who made their hits so memorable.
With layered music coming from backstage to bring these songs into full throttle, and a nine-piece band right under the floorboards of the stage, it was fun trying to predict (or remember, if you have seen this show before) what song was up next. Some of the audience members knew every word to every song, so I could appreciate the brilliance of building a plot (no matter how far-fetched, or even “stupid,” as a patron near me put it) around catchy tunes that can be choreographed for maximum entertainment. Many of us have been a Dancing Queen in front of a mirror or sung about some “Waterloo” with enthusiasm. You would have to be one cold customer not to smile when you hear these pop hits translated into a quasi-pop-opera. In fact, if there were less speaking and more singing, I would be fine with that.
For the uninitiated, Donna Sheridan (an engaging Sally Wilfert, who is not Meryl Streep, but I liked her and her voice, which really shined in parts) was a flower child of the '70s, when things were looser. One year, she had one heck of a summer, having relationships (or flings, depending on your point of view) with three men—one of whom is father to her only child, Sophie Sheridan. Now her daughter is getting married, and after reading her mother’s diary from the summer before she was born, decides (and somehow knows how) to get in touch with these three men and invite all of them to her impending nuptials. She has a dream of finding her father, and that is the catalyst for the whole story.
The opening set is a wall of multicolored shutters, which look like they are from a Greek Island, say Santorini? And why? Because this musical is set on a beautiful Greek island where Donna has run a taverna and raised Sophie sans father. I loved the set, which easily switched from the dining area to a bedroom, and I also loved the blue and white carefree costumes worn by Sophie and Donna. (I also loved the outlandish get-ups of Donna’s gal pals, but more on them in a sec.) The other costumes? Not so much. There were weird rompers worn by the girls, and it seems as in every scene someone was wearing something that didn’t quite fit. But really, who cares? You are here for the music and the dancing, and you just don’t have time to call an SOS on the wardrobe, right?
There is a large ensemble and some memorable dance numbers, but it is uneven with stars alongside those who aren’t nearly as confident. But that’s okay—the overall effect is fun and entertaining, which is the whole raison d’etre of this show. But the dancing of Donna’s friend of her youth, Tanya (with a knock-out performance by Felicia Finley) is amazing, and she was one of my favorite and most memorable performers in the whole show. With her pink catsuits, crazy printed skin-tight dresses, and her deadpan humor about having been married three times, her voice and movements were spot-on every time.
For that matter, Donna, Tanya, and Rosie—all past members of the girl band Donna and The Dynamos—really are fabulous dynamos in this show, outshining the younger performers. Berklea Going as the adorable Sophie does a wonderful job, but Donna and her sidekicks really command attention. With their boas and history and dancing and singing, they remind us what fun really looks like. Rosie (Carla Woods) is a terrific comedienne, whether chasing after Bill Austin (Stephen Bogard) with suggestive singing and dance moves, she is the one that is laugh-out loud funny, and really stands out in this talented cast.
Skye (Karl Joseph Ko) is Sophie’s fiancé—a tough gig in a show that seems to reject marriage as something that is represented as super-stupid. Anyway, girls just want to have fun in this show, so don’t expect anything too deep or too woke. For example, when Donna and crew sing “Money, Money, Money,” it is A-Okay to sing a gold digger song, because money.
Of the triumvirate of fathers, Matthew Scott stood out as Sam Carmichael, who really does still have feelings for Donna, really can sing, and has better lines and songs and more scenes. So that worked out. Although, Mark Price as Harry Bright has great comedic timing and is likeable for sure.
I think you can imagine that this show has a happy ending, and it does. The main thing is that this new production really sexes things up, has more physical comedy and coarse humor, and so it does seem fresh and not just a microwaved version of the film, or the version I saw years ago at the Hobby Center. A good time was had by all around me, so “Thank You for The Music," go ahead and say, “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do,” and Take A Chance on Mamma Mia! Knowing me, knowing you, you’ll love singing along. And when you think the show is over—stick around. There is a glittery surprise you don’t want to miss.
Thru March 3. Tickets from $30. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby St. 713-558-2600. More info and tickets at tuts.com.