Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Theater review: 'Mamma Mia!' is a hit -- and a miss

The cast of Mamma Mia! in action.
(Photo by Carol Rosegg)

By Hap Erstein

That much-maligned theater stepchild, the jukebox musical, is built from used parts, involving the meticulous selection and insertion of existing songs into a story line to make a cohesive whole.

But if a careless mess like Mamma Mia! can run for years on Broadway, generate road companies all over the globe as well as spawn a wildly successful movie version, why would anyone bother adhering to the rules of tidy construction?

OK, so this feel-good exercise in energetic escapism gets no point for neatness. Its songs by the bass-heavy, disco-beat Swedish rock group ABBA fit clumsily into a silly tale of a bride-to-be, her single independent-minded mother and three men, each of whom might be the bride’s father. Still, audiences cannot get enough of this show, which in currently making its third appearance at West Palm Beach’s Kravis Center in five years, proving how few theatergoers bother to listen to the lyrics of Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus anyway.

The score is chock-full of simple, insistent, infectious numbers -- like Dancing Queen, Super Trouper, S.O.S, and the title tune -- that take us back to the days of Spandex and flower power. The songs are terrific, but they are more pop than theatrical and are used haphazardly and virtually interchangeably.

The story, credited to playwright Catherine Johnson -- though it owes an awful lot to a 1969 Gina Lollobrigida movie called Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell -- takes place on an anonymous Greek island where Donna Sheridan (Michelle Dawson) was a free spirit and, conveniently, a rock singer 20 years earlier. That is when she gave birth to daughter Sophie (Liana Hunt), and resolved to raise her and run an inn/taverna without bothering to determine who the girl’s father is. Now, as Sophie’s wedding approaches, she learns the identities of her mom’s trio of possible sperm donors and invites them all to the nuptials.

In any event, do not worry about the plot. The show doesn’t take it very seriously, so there is no reason why you should. The script is sketchy at best, just something to hold the 22 musical numbers together and certainly nothing to get involved with emotionally. The performers sing well enough -- very well in Dawson’s case -- but most of the characters have become broadly cartoonish.

They seem to come in threes. There is Donna and her two former back-up singers, the much-married but still randy Tanya (Rachel Tyler) and chunky, up-for-a-good-time Rosie (Kittra Wynn Coomer). There’s Sophie and her two bridesmaids and there’s the trio of would-be biological dads.

Director Phyllida Lloyd is a theater and opera veteran who took her first plunge into musicals with Mamma Mia!, staging the traffic efficiently enough, but never figuring out a reason for us to care about these people. Still, she is obviously more comfortable with live theater than she is with film, as the only thing more inept than the stage show is the 2008 movie. Susan Stroman (The Producers) is off the hook for the least talented film debut by a stage director learning on the job.

In any event, for those legions of Mamma Mia! fans, the road company is delivering the full silly experience, along with Anthony Van Laast’s calesthentic choreography. It is a featherweight show, exactly as intended, and the first two-and-a-half hours are mere preface for the extended curtain call.

MAMMA MIA!, Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach, continuing through Sun., Aug. 9. Tickets: $25- $90. Call: (561) 832-7469.


Anonymous said...

I saw the show and yes you are correct in your summation as to its levity and lack of content, but only one with an inserted tool would lament further. The other 2499 individulas who attended had a good time! Perhaps a dose of Preparation H is in order here.

John Thomason said...

I was shocked at how much I enjoyed this show, even though I had to check my brain at the door. The film version is an unwatchable travesty, but this show is fun.