It’s pretty hard to resist this big “Mamma.” Three years after it opened, “Mamma Mia!” is still a sellout in the West End, and even during Broadway’s slowest weeks, it does boffo biz in New York. The show’s success elsewhere will undoubtedly be duplicated by the national touring company, in for a 10-week stay at the Ahmanson. The show certainly has its flaws, including a goofy book and some work by supporting actors who could poke you in the eye with their shtick. But the rough spots are easily glossed over by the Benny Andersson-Bjorn Ulvaeus songs — how many recent musicals can boast a dozen rock-em/sock-em tunes? — and by the production’s leads Dee Hoty, Michelle Aravena and Gary P. Lynch, who are likable and have knockout voices.
The show was designed as a showcase for Abba songs, and on that level alone, it’s a success. The musical features 22 tunes by the Swedish group whose popularity in the States was just a fraction of their phenomenal success globally from the early-’70s to mid-’80s (350 million albums sold worldwide). “Mamma” is basically a theatricalized concert, with the well-sung songs beautifully supported by Anthony Van Laast’s energetic and sexy choreography and Mark Thompson’s colorful costumes.
The plot, not that it matters much, is set on a small Greek island. (Why center a tale about Swedish songs on a Greek island? For the same reason you might set a musical featuring Bee Gees tunes in Fiji — why not?)
American expat Donna (Hoty), who runs a taverna, is a single mom; 20-year-old daughter Sophie (Aravena), who’s about to get married, peeks at mom’s old diary to find out who her father may be. Without telling mom, Sophie invites the three candidates to the island for her big fat Greek wedding.
The plot has all the staples of farce (mistaken identity, mismatched lovers, etc.). There are a lot of subsidiary characters running around: Sophie has two chums, Donna has two old pals who were her former backup singers, the groom-to-be Sky (a winning Ryan Silverman) has two buddies, etc. Everything seems to come in sets of threes in this musical. (Why? Why not?)
The audience lapped up every grimace and pratfall of Donna’s two pals, the man-hungry Rosie (Gabrielle Jones, outfitted like a middle-aged version of Scooby-Doo’s Velma) and Tanya (Mary Ellen Mahoney), world-weary and pampered, like a sober version of Patsy from “Absolutely Fabulous.” The actresses, like many others in the cast, were not hired for their subtlety and apparently saw no need to use it.
As two of the paternal candidates, Mark Zimmerman and Craig Bennett are saddled with dialects (English and Aussie, respectively), and if you can buy the plot, you can accept these accents. But everyone sings and performs with such gusto, quibbles seem inconsequential.
Hoty is forced into a few moments of hoke, but she rises above it all, and she brings down the house several times, particularly with a fierce and wounded “The Winner Takes It All”; it’s a terrific performance. She’s well matched with Aravena, who adds a sweet spunkiness to the character, and Lynch, who’s warm, funny and appealing in a difficult role.
The book by Catherine Johnson is the weakest element, but who cares? About half the running time is devoted to songs, so you just wait a few minutes for the next one.
Johnson, savvy director Phyllida Lloyd and the producers have accomplished their goal of shaping a play around a catalog of hits. The show is reminiscent of the joke about the dumb theatergoer who saw “Hamlet” for the first time and was impressed at how the writer found a way to use so many famous quotes in his play. When Rosie turns to Donna and suddenly sings “Chiquitita, tell me what’s wrong,” it gets a big laugh, partly because it’s well delivered, but partly because the audience is impressed: Oh, look how they worked that song into this show!
With minimal lyric alterations, the songs fit in seamlessly with the plot. But then, the lyrics were never that specific to begin with, and sometimes didn’t exactly make sense. No American or Brit would write “The winner takes it all/The loser’s standing small.” Many of the repetitious titles similarly betray the fact that English was a second language for the scribes: “Honey, Honey,” “Money, Money, Money,” “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do,” etc.
But the songs, many featuring a disco wah-wah beat (and a few featuring a third collaborator, Stig Anderson), will have heads bobbing and toes tapping. The years change many perspectives, and all those who once felt guilty for enjoying the songs can now, 20 years later, cast off their shame and even add a touch of poignant affection. And those who don’t remember the songs can embrace them like the artifacts of pop culture that they are.
One fears that the success of this show will open a floodgate of musicals based on old top 40 numbers. But while “Mamma Mia!” makes it look easy, other attempts to showcase pop songs have proved that it’s not.
Before seeing “Mamma Mia!,” it seems like an easy show to dislike. The notion of contorting a musical around some proven pop hits seems distressingly calculated and cynical. As if to ensure that safety net, Martin Koch’s arrangements are close approximations of the original recordings; there’s little musical audacity here. Other elements of the show seem similarly derivative. The key artwork resembles that of the Aussie pic “Muriel’s Wedding” (another work that added Abba music to a wedding plot), and the book seems both familiar (anybody remember the 1968 film “Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell”?) and far-fetched.
And reports of audiences dancing in the aisles raise suspicions that publicists are working overtime. (As far as I recall, no one ever danced in the aisles at “My Fair Lady” or “West Side Story,” so that seems a questionable yardstick for artistic success.)
But put that cynicism aside; “Mamma Mia!” set out to be fun, and that’s what it is. It’s smartly directed and produced; every tech element, including Howard Harrison’s lighting and Thompson’s sets, are first-rate.
If the audience hasn’t been won over in the first 40 minutes, they ought to be converted by a musical number in which chorus men dance in snorkels and flippers. If that doesn’t do the trick, a few minutes later, Donna and her pals deliver a socko disco-y “Super Trouper,” bedecked in 1970s glittery excess. And curmudgeons will be won over by the stupendous first-act finale and the long, whoop-de-doo curtain call. No one can resist. And don’t be surprised if there’s dancing in the aisles. Why? Why not?