Writing a movie, TV show or stage play is not an easy job. Character development, a plot, themes, dialog, a beginning, middle and end is tough. Add an original score and replace half the dialog with songs is even more difficult. But taking already existing catalog songs that bear no relation to each other, except by the people who wrote and performed them, and crafting a coherent story around them has to be the most difficult job of all.
And let’s all give a big round of applause to Catherine Johnson for coming up with a story that successfully weaves in the classic songs of ABBA to present the story of Sophie, a young woman living on a Greek island with her mother Donna, on the verge of getting married but there is one problem — Sophie does not know who her father is, and frankly neither does her mother who apparently cavorted with three different men on the same night in 1979. Sophie learns this by sneaky a look at her mother’s diary, and then invites the three men to her wedding, unbeknownst to her mother. When Donna sees the men and thinks it all an odd coincidence, and has no time to deal with any past drama, things come to a head when everyone realizes why they are there. But who’s the daddy?
Mamma Mia! may or may not answer that question, but getting to the end is a lot of fun nonetheless. Part of the enjoyment of the show comes from the music which most everyone is familiar with, ranging from “Take a Chance on Me” to “S.O.S.” and everything in between, including some of the lesser known titles. It’s surprising how most of the songs seem to fit pretty naturally into the narrative, and I have to say that one of the best numbers that really was organic to the scene comes near the end when Donna sings “The Winner Takes It All”. As one of the possible fathers tries to talk to her, that first line of the song, “I don’t want to talk,” worked so well. And Betsy Padamonsky (Donna) sang it beautifully, enough to bring a few tears to my eyes.
Padamonsky is wonderful as Donna and even though there were some sound issues plaguing her for a lot of the first act, when she was finally able to really sing without the orchestra drowning her, she was fabulous. And whereas many in the cast seemed a bit over-eager to perform, Padamonsky grounded everything with her very natural performance. And she’s wonderful in person as well, revealing that they had about three weeks to put this show together.
Cashelle Butler and Sarah Smith, as Donna’s friends Tanya and Rosie, almost steal the show every time they are in a scene. Butler gets a great solo with some of the boys with “Does Your Mother Know” (and she also gets to wear some amazing hats), while Smith brings down the house with “Take a Chance On Me.” The group numbers are also fabulous, especially “Lay All Your Love On Me” (with the guys in wetsuits and flippers) and “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” in which Sophie inadvertently ends up asking all three men to walk her down the aisle when they realize why they’re there. The show ends with the audience on their feet, singing and dancing along with the cast to “Dancing Queen” and “Waterloo”, a great way to leave the audience smiling and humming on the way out.
The show has some nice costumes, particularly the outfits Donna and her friends don from their 70s girl group days featuring white spandex, sparkle and platform heels. And the finale costumes riff on those but in living color. If you’ve been following my reviews, you know I like big Broadway musicals with massive sets and props that easily glide on and off stage. Mamma Mia is more pared down to basically two walls on wheels that stage hands (in costume) move and rotate to create a new scene, with the addition of tables, chairs, a bed or other pieces of furniture. It’s creative, to be sure, but it brings the production value of the show down just a notch for me. But when you have a wonderful cast that is obviously having a great time performing in this show and singing these classic songs, you can almost forgive the set.
In addition to the actors already mentioned, Mark Cornes, Andrew Tebo and Shai Yammanee are terrific as Bill, Harry and Sam respectively, each giving their characters their own specific traits. Lizzie Markson as Sophie took a while to win me over though. She and her co-stars in the opening scene just played things a little too over-the-top, not really giving authentic performances, but they all meshed well once things got rolling and they interacted with the other cast members. In general though, everyone from the leads to the secondary characters to the swing players were all enjoyable to watch.
I enjoyed Mamma Mia! more in the second act than the first, which felt too much like a community theatre presentation, so I was won over by the end (I did, however, enjoy it more than the movie). It would be interesting to see what a full scale production would look like though. The show ran on Broadway for 14 years and 5,773 performances and now the tour is winding down as well. The show is in Baltimore for a very short stay through January 15 at the Hippodrome Theatre, and will continue through the end of July in various cities including Des Moines, Austin, Salt Lake City, Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Portland, Seattle, Denver, Daytona Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Boston, New Orleans, Atlanta, St. Louis and more, with more dates to be announced.
You can find the tour dates on the show’s website, or check our Ticketmaster link for ticket availability in your city.