By: Jeannie Lieberman
Karen Mason, Louise
Pitre and Judy Kaye in Mamma Mia!.
Photo by Joan Marcus
This is a feel good evening whose time has definitely come. A scant two
years after its London opening the show has a string of successful productions
which spread like lightning all over the English speaking world. When primary
producer, Judy Craymer, approached relatively unknown TV/theater writer
Catherine Johnson to do the book she was somewhat incredulous but, a big
fan of ABBA, she was eager to comply and is still surprised by its success.
Later on Director Phyllida Lloyd, whose main experience was with opera,
jumped on board with the theory that this would not be a star driven vehicle,
but rather draw on the enthusiasm of an untested cast chosen from each
country in which the production is mounted.
The star of the show is the score by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus
of the famous '70's Swedish pop group, ABBA and, if you already know and
love songs like "Dancing Queen", "Money, Money, Money",
"The Winner Takes All", "Mamma Mia" and eighteen others,
you need know nothing more. The upbeat music is accessible even to those
previously unacquainted with it.
Johnson's slim story, shoe horned between the songs, seems lifted from
the movie "Buena Sera, Mrs. Campbell". Sophie (Tina Maddigan)
is getting married on an idyllic Greek isle but wants her father to give
her away. However, her mother, Donna (Louise Pitre) had three lovers (Dean
Nolan, Ken Marks, David W Keeley) in the heyday of the swinging sixties
and no one, including Donna, knows which is Sophie's real father. Sophie
secretly invites them all to the wedding shocking everyone including her
fiance, Sky (Joe Machota), Donna's old friends and former band mates Tanya
and Rosie (marvelous Broadway veterans Karen Mason and Judy Kaye who have
done many Broadway
Shows in the past).
The first act's preoccupation with introducing the characters and situation
affords many opportunities to slip in the songs, but as emotion mounts
in the second half, and relationships develop, the intimate moments between
Sophie and her "fathers" and Donna and her former lovers the
music simply does not work. Andersson and Ulvaeus have insisted the arrangements,
under Martin Koch's watchful eye, remain unchanged and so, when there is
an emotional duet between Donna & Sam, he starts appropriately singing
solo. Suddenly there is an unseen chorus accompanying him and the intimate
moment dissolves into a full blown orchestration.
These songs are not written for musical theater and Bruce & Aitken's
all out, nonspecific amplification cannot adapt to the subtleties of the
book. Furthermore the songs are listed in alphabetical order in the program
so the savvy audience tries to guess which song is about to be heard, and
laughs in delighted recognition destroying any coherent response to the
charming if familiar story. Mark Thompson's set designs and Anthony Van
Laast's choreography register "cute", no more dimensional than
the characters. Howard Harrison's lighting gets a chance to shine only
after the play ends. Both the story and the music are recycled offering
questionable value for money spent ( a CD is cheaper and will last longer
than your memories of the show).
At the curtain calls the show gives up all pretense of a play and reverts
into a full scale pop concert...and that's exactly how it should be.
Mamma Mia, good theater? No! Good Fun? Yes!