“Mamma Mia!,” the musical built around the hit songs of the ’70s pop group Abba, has no pretensions to being great theater. Instead it winks, focusing on supplying a good time as it pieces together a musical jigsaw of infectious songs from the group’s heyday.
The Abba “Bs,” Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Anderson, have called “Mamma Mia!” the musical that they didn’t realize they had written until Catherine Johnson manufactured a book to weave around numbers that had existed for more than two decades.
The majority of the 22 songs slot into place fairly seamlessly, even if close examination of the nutty story line would reveal all sorts of loopholes. The bouncy tone of the show requires getting with the program: Forget analysis, slip into light-hearted and light-headed mode and be entertained.
The surprising aspect is not the winding path “Mamma Mia!” takes to accommodate the songs that are its raison d’etre, but the fact that the show can periodically be touching as well as constantly amusing. This is partly because the inventive and often audacious direction, musical direction and choreography keep the sense of mischief alive almost all the time.
The North American incarnation boasts a number of polished, jaunty performances – particularly from Mary Ellen Mahoney and Gabrielle Jones, playing the kooky sidekicks of Louise Pitre’s Donna Sheridan, the owner of a Greek-island taverna who is hosting the wedding of her 20-year-old daughter Sophie (Tina Maddigan).
Sophie wants her father to walk her down the aisle – if she can find out which of the three beaus who passed through Donna’s life 21 years before is her dad. Inviting them all to the wedding occasions the guessing game at the center of the slight plot.
The Toronto production reportedly features some retinkering that emphasized character development, and this has perhaps helped to shape the show’s one outstanding characterization, Pitre’s Donna. Pitre is simply magnificent, musically and dramatically. Her show-stopping delivery of “The Winner Takes It All” is just one of many moments when the show is a star vehicle, and there is no doubt that she is the star.
The Toronto production of “Mamma Mia” begins its U.S. tour in San Francisco in November.