“Mamma Mia!,” the musical based on the songs of Abba, is a silly affair all around, and that’s its greatest asset. The show takes some of the Swedish pop group’s best-known tunes and threads a narrative through them, albeit a pretty flimsy one that starts off well enough but collapses under its own weightlessness. Not that it matters, since despite some marketing to the contrary, the story just provides an excuse for the performers to deliver the ditties like “Dancing Queen” and “The Winner Takes It All” and the repetitively titled “Gimme, Gimme, Gimme,” “Honey Honey,” “Money, Money, Money” and “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do” to an audience ready to eat them up. Emptier entertainment would be hard to find, but that’s a brand of feel-good fun this show emits in abundance.
The story, irrelevant though it may be, goes like this: 20-year-old Sophie (Tina Maddigan) is about to get married on the Greek island where she has been raised by her independent mom Donna (Louise Pitre), who once was the lead singer in the “world’s first girl-power band.”
Desperate to know who her father is, Sophie has read Donna’s old diary entries and narrowed the possibilities to three candidates, whom she has invited to her wedding, unbeknownst to her mom.
Sophie’s three possible dads are Sam (Gary P. Lynch), an architect who left Donna for his then-fiancee; Bill (David Mucci), a beefy Australian travel writer; and Harry (Lee MacDougall), a rather nerdish banker once called, for reasons clearly ironic, Headbanger.
Sophie gradually fills them in on why she has summoned them, and each volunteers to walk her down the aisle. Determining which one is her real father, though, turns out to be more difficult than expected.
Donna, meanwhile, has to deal with being confronted by her past, when she was a lot more carefree than she is now. She’s not happy that her daughter sees fit to get married at the tender age of 20, and has to be cheered up by her former bandmates, the much-married Tanya (Mary Ellen Mahoney) and the lovelorn feminist Rosie (Gabrielle Jones).
Donna also finds her feelings for Sam immediately rekindled — (“Mamma Mia,” she sings upon seeing him, “Why did I let him go?,” but you know the words).
Catherine Johnson wrote the book, and the premise is actually pretty good. It has a clear end-game — the wedding, the identification of the dad — and provides lots of opportunities for nostalgic remembrance, which is where many of the best songs come in.
The audience gets to have fun figuring out how she’ll weave in the numbers and which one will come next. (The program lists the songs but not the order.) There’s some cleverness involved, with abrupt entries into familiar songs providing some of the biggest laughs of the evening.
The lyrics, all unchanged, don’t always fit snugly with the narrative, but let’s not get picky and expect songs to advance narrative. Leave that for Mr. Sondheim.
By the second act, the game has gotten a little tired, and the storyline has long since slumbered. This is where a different kind of craftiness saves the show.
The first is the exceptionally fluid direction by Phyllida Lloyd, who stages remarkably seamless transitions and keeps the playing light.
Designer Mark Thompson has provided a very simple but flexible set, and the watery blue backgrounds give it all an appropriate unreality. This is a setting where nobody needs to worry about how they dress or how silly they behave, and thus it doesn’t seem at all out of place when dancers perform two of the numbers dressed in scuba gear.
Choreographer Anthony Van Laast gets to show a sense of humor, particularly when he’s making use of flippers.
And then there’s Louise Pitre, a silver-haired Canadian actress who makes a terrific Donna. It’s easy to see why the three guys would have been drawn to her decades ago, and why they still are. The best numbers belong to her, and she belts out the songs with an infectious passion. When she revives Donna and the Dynamos, replete with platform shoes and white spandex, the audience goes nuts.The rest of the performances are fun to watch as well, particularly that of Mary Ellen Mahoney, who’s given the likably campy role and plays it to the hilt. Tina Maddigan is strong as Sophie, but there’s something deeply dull about this character, and even duller about her fiance Sky (a well-cast Adam Brazier, who takes his shirt off a lot).
After Donna, the three dads (dare I say this show is about the search for true “Pop”?) provide the most entertainment, although as Sam, Gary Lynch has a delivery that tends toward the inappropriately heavy.
In the end, the songs of Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus — feather-light, simple, pure pop — set the tone for the evening and provide the lingering sentiment. And feeling is ultimately all that matters with an enjoyably vacuous show like “Mamma Mia!”