Photo by Kevin Thomas Garcia.
The vivacious spirit of ABBA has returned to the Orpheum Theatre in the form of the Broadway hit Mamma Mia! This is the megamusical’s eighth run in Minneapolis and is reportedly the last tour for a while. (Proving that nature abhors a vacuum, an ABBA tribute band has already been engaged for next season and ABBA itself is reuniting for a reunion tour.) Mamma Mia! is a straight-up vehicle for showcasing the music of ABBA, a former super group from Sweden, with the book by Catherine Johnson. Abba members Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus wrote most of the songs in the show. Director Phyllida Lloyd and musical supervisor Martin Koch provide a very campy and fun version of this popular show in its latest run.
The storyline is similar to that from the 1968 movie Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell, in which a woman with a grown daughter is surprised by visits from three men she was once intimate with. One of them, she is sure, is her daughter’s father, but she does not know which one (this was before the existence of DNA testing, of course). In Mamma Mia!, Donna (Betsy Padamonsky) is the mother and a similar surprise is sprung on her. Her daughter Sophie (Lizzie Markson), who is about to be married, secretly invites the three men listed in her mother’s diary to the wedding because she surmises that one of them must be her biological father.
Since Sophie’s birth, Donna has spent all of her time running a small resort on the peaceful Greek island of Kalokaire (a fictional island, but if you saw the movie, that was filmed on Skopelos). When the three “fathers” arrive, we learn that one is an American architect named Sam (Shai Yammanee), another a gay British banker named Harry (Andrew Tebo), and the third an Australian writer and adventurer named Bill (Mark Cornes). Sam was Donna’s true love, but he left her to return to his fiancé in the United States. To deal with the pain, she immediately threw herself into very short-term relationships with both Harry and Bill, resulting in the plot-driving dilemma.
Fortunately for the rhinestones, Donna’s character was once the lead singer for a group called Donna and the Dynamos. The two Dynamos, Tanya (Cashelle Butler) and Rosie (Sarah Smith), arrive to be with Donna at Sophie’s wedding. Tanya has made a career of marrying wealthy men and she soon unsuccessfully sets her sights on Harry the banker. Rosie is an independent woman who finds herself attracted to Bill the adventurer. Meanwhile, Sophie and her fiancé Sky (Dustin Harris Smith) discover they have some issues to resolve, because this show needs a few knots to keep things from getting immediately untied.
Mamma Mia! is the most successful of the current generation of jukebox musicals built around the songs of a single artist or group. ABBA’s music was extremely popular in the 1970s, with upbeat melodies and catchy lyrics oftentimes bordering on the genre of bubble gum rock. Much of the play’s storyline, therefore is simply for the purpose of setting up another ABBA song. The setups also provide much of the show’s humor. Some of these are a bit strained and I cannot help but think that with a little more effort they could have stretched the story line to include my favorite ABBA song, Fernando, which concerns a Mexican revolutionary from the turn of the last century.
Butler and Smith are the source of hilarity with their romantic relationships. When Smith as Rosie (Smith) and Bill (Cornes), finally get together romantically with the song “Take a Chance on Me,” it nearly brought the house down with laughter.
Mark Thompson’s production design consists of a functional and rather bare set consisting of the small resort and its courtyard. Howard Harrison’s lighting provides much of the background design for the play.
The most enjoyable part of the show was at the very end when the principle characters come out in brightly colored, flamboyant Abba costumes. The actors ham it up reprising the ABBA hits “Waterloo,” “Dancing Queen” and “Momma Mia,” with much of the audience clapping and singing along with them.