Review: “Mamma Mia!” Music & Lyrics by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus and some songs with Stig Andersson. Book by Catherine Johnson. Original Choreography by Anthony Van Laast. Original Direction by Phyllida Lloyd. With Kaye Tuckerman, Chloe Tucker, Mary Callanan, Alison Ewing, Paul DeBoy, Christian Whelan, John-Michael Zuerlein, Happy Mahaney. Now through March 25 at The Paramount.
Of course the main problem with ABBA, whether you love their songs or not, is that they are infectious as hell and those catchy lyrics and boppy pop tunes will be embed in your head for DAYS after hearing them…I saw the current touring production of ABBA’S “Mamma Mia!” at The Paramount on Monday night, and the refrain of “Super Troopers” is still worming its way through my head…Damn you, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus and your impossible to resist Swedish melodies!
And, like any self respecting gay male over the age of 40, I am a proud ABBA fan…yes, young Little Strangeways wore out the grooves of many an ABBA album in the carefree days of the mid 1970’s. While the other boys in the neighborhood were busy worshipping KISS and The Eagles as they read Dynamite magazine and collected Wacky Pack stickers, I was at home getting swoony with those four adorable Swedes….while my soul/funk loving father was shaking his head in despair as he listened to his Otis Redding and The Isley Brothers.
So, yes, I adore ABBA and gleefully broke my “Mamma Mia!” stage cherry and attended the opening night of the current touring show now playing at The Paramount, along with hundreds of other cheery ABBA fans, the majority of us in our 40’s and 50’s, (with plenty of kids in attendance as well…ABBA is pretty family friendly despite all the songs about sexual betrayal and the plot involving illegitimate birth…)
The stage musical of “Mamma Mia!” is…a lot like the hit film based on the musical and starring Meryl Streep. The film beefed up Meryl’s role as illegitimate single mum, former lead singer in a disco era girl group, sole proprietor of a dingy Greek vacation villa, Donna Sheridan at the expense of the role of the daughter, Sophie who on the eve of her wedding to the hunky and ridiculously named Sky, decides to track down the identity of her dad by sending wedding invites to the three men she suspect might be her Pappa. Comedy and musical numbers ensue, and anyone who ever watched the old Sixties film, “Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell” realizes that the creators of this musical pretty much ripped off the plot of that old film. “Mamma Mia!” doesn’t have an inventive or particularly clever libretto…it’s purely designed to vaguely connect a dozen or so ABBA hits and appeal to their core fanbase: women and the gays. A romantic Greek setting; a summer resort; scantily clad chorus boys; empowered women and a jukebox full of hit pop songs = Monster Hit Musical that has earned ABBA a couple billion dollars.
So, yes…the plot is dumb and hackneyed and cuter than thou. And, while ABBA does have a buttload of awesome hit songs, they also had to go to the well to dig up some not so awesome ABBA songs to fill out the evening and make the plot move along. We all adore “Dancing Queen”, “Mamma Mia”, “Waterloo” and “Money, Money, Money” but the opening of Act II that includes a stretch of B Team ABBA songs like “Under Attack” and “One of Us” that is a bit snoozy. The clunky plot frequently gets in the way of the songs we want to hear and frankly, the Sophie character is a bit of a nudge. The film was wise to scale back her role.
“Mamma Mia!” is also hampered by a dull unit set (that has been much derided by the original critics of the musical) and a general air of cheapness…it’s apparent the rationale has always been: “Why spend a fortune on sets/costumes/lighting/name actors when you’re creating a show centered on the ABBA songbook?” ABBA has ALWAYS been the star of “Mamma Mia!”
Still, “Mamma Mia!” is sort of irresistible. The hits just keep coming and coming and coming, carefully interspersed throughout the lesser beloved songs and it is a colorful and brightly lit bauble of a show. It has a strong power woman role for Donna who gets to belt out some of the strongest ABBA songs; her two adorably funny sidekicks who nearly steal the show; plenty of young beefcake chorus boys running around in unbuttoned shirts and wetsuits; a trio of sexy older daddies for those of us who appreciate our meat slightly aged; and the infamous curtain call featuring a medley of Greatest Hits and the six main adult characters in ridiculous 70’s era Disco garb costumes. What’s not to love?
For an ABBA fan who’s had a couple of Cosmos before the show.