If life were not a cabaret but a karaoke bar, we could all live in the world of sunny, syncopated bliss that is “Mamma Mia!” There, no moment is too awkward, no emotional crisis too severe that tensions can’t be defused by the sudden arrival of a sweet synthesizer riff, a singsong chorus or a thumping bass line. Who knew that the songs of Abba, a once-obsolete Swedish pop band prone to silly getups, held the solutions to so many of life’s little quandaries?
“Mamma Mia!,” which weaves a few threads of romantic comedy around a bumper crop of old Abba tunes, is a thoroughly preposterous show, but it’s also a giddy guilty pleasure, and its arrival on Broadway in a time of unforeseen anxiety has an aura of sweet inevitability. (“Spores, shmores! Let’s boogie!”) The show is already a certified hit, with an advance approaching $30 million, and that number will hang firm as word spreads — in sheepish whispers, and from the unlikeliest of quarters — about the genial good time it offers.
The book by Catherine Johnson is equal parts real and synthetic charm, but its primary function is to nimbly set up and then get out of the way of songs you probably didn’t know you knew, and definitely didn’t know you liked this much. The book’s self-effacing nature becomes more pronounced as the evening rises toward its climax: a megamix finale featuring a reprise of the title tune, “Dancing Queen” (Abba’s biggest U.S. hit) and “Waterloo,” at which point dancing in the aisles of the beautifully refurbished Winter Garden Theater is all but demanded.
The primary characters are single mother Donna Sheridan (Louise Pitre) and her 20-year-old daughter, Sophie (Tina Maddigan), who live on a tiny Greek island where Donna runs a tavern with a few rooms to let and a multimillion-dollar sound system in the basement. (The show’s volume is turned up so high they can probably hear the overture in the Cyclades, actually.)
Sophie’s getting ready to tie the knot with boyfriend Sky, another American whose presence on the island is unexplained (in London, where the show originated, the characters were English, making the Greek exile more rational). Maybe Sky was left behind while on a cover shoot for Men’s Fitness; Joe Machota’s who-knew-you-could-get-muscles-there body is the kind usually seen with phrases like “10 Tips for Sexual Stamina” and “Six Weeks to a Sixpack” flanking it. He’s an able performer, but in danger of being upstaged by his own abs.
Anyway, the one wedding gift Sophie really wants is the answer to the mystery of her father’s identity. She’s raided her mother’s diary and discovered that during the month or so in question, Donna, a free-living woman two decades back, was dumped by one guy and found solace with two others. (Internal references would put the time of current events in the late ’80s or early ’90s, though this is never mentioned.) Sophie has invited all three men to her nuptials, hoping somehow to discover which is the real DNA donor.
With the significant addition of Donna’s wisecracking girlfriends, the “AbFabby,” thrice-married Tanya (Karen Mason) and the butch (but straight) feminist Rosie (Judy Kaye), this little whodunit provides enough narrative momentum to fill in the blanks between the 22 Abba tunes in the super-sized soundtrack (score is hardly the word).
The book has cute jokes and dumb ones, honest moments and sentimental ones, but much of the humor, and much of the pleasure, comes from discovering how cleverly — or not so cleverly — songs with no previous connection to narrative have been shoehorned into the plot. (Some lyrics have been altered a bit.)
After some initial overexuberance has subsided, Phyllida Lloyd’s winking direction and the appealing performances of the uniformly well-cast players let us know that they know the show is, at least on one level, a dippy parlor game, played out on a serviceable set by Mark Thompson with a faux stone floor that glows with disco heat as needed.
In an early scene Rosie comforts the addled Donna, who’s reeling from the arrival of her three ex-beaux. After a significant pause, Kaye raises an eyebrow at the audience, and with a delicious for-this-I-studied-with-Strasberg shrug, begins singing, “Chiquitita, tell me what’s wrong….” The song later takes off into the kind of crazed goofiness that characterizes much of Anthony Van Laast’s ditzy choreography.
Pitre, a handsome, silver-maned French performer who has been with the show since its North American debut in Toronto last year, brings a grounded, appealingly tough edge to the role of Donna, and sings with a husky, piercing tone that has a smidgen of Piaf in it. Her rapport with Maddigan’s perky, sweet Sophie feels authentic in both its warmth and its wariness: Sophie’s the good girl Donna never was. Donna’s plaintive “Slipping Through My Fingers,” a lament for the swift passing of time, is one of the moments when song and narrative moment are seamlessly matched.
There are other moments, particularly in the second act, that raise less pleasurable titters. “Knowing Me, Knowing You” (unh-huuuhhh), sung soberly as a bit of advice about marriage’s trials by the likable David W. Keeley (he plays the fella Donna really loved), really is taking things too far. The show’s incipient idiocy also threatens to overwhelm our more charitable impulses during the lunatic act-two opener, a nightmare extravaganza in which Sophie is tormented by a chorus of scuba-gear-clad choristers, her three dads in vaguely sinister attire and her fiance, who parades around in her wedding dress. Mamma mia, indeed!
In fact, the second act is entirely too long; the creators don’t seem to realize how thin the idea is wearing (couldn’t they save some songs for a sequel?). And it’s disappointing that the singers are so often overwhelmed by the overbearing orchestrations; Mason and Kaye make a zippy comic twosome, and both surely would make more of their songs if we could hear them above the techno-din.
Still, they and the rest of the cast (Ken Marks and Dean Nolen are appealing as bachelors No. 2 and 3) perform with loads of professionalism and enthusiasm, knowing they’re really all supporting players. The star of the show is those unnervingly catchy songs, 22 mood-altering ditties that work happy magic on one’s serotonin levels.
This phenomenon is not without its drawbacks, however: They tend to settle inside your head with unsettling speed and firmness. My anthrax anxieties have subsided temporarily, but I’m now worried about the lingering aftereffects of overexposure to Abba songs.