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Mamma Mia, Thank you for the Music...and you could have stopped there

The disco-decked cast of Mamma Mia sings Waterloo
The disco-decked cast of Mamma Mia sings Waterloo
Photo courtesy of the Hennepin Theatre Trust

As more pop-score musicals take the stage, it has become more obvious where this genre is getting it all wrong. Unfortunately, ABBA’s theatrical incarnation is no exception to this charge. At what point did producers decide that all musical reviews must now be tied together with some makeshift plot that’s based loosely on a progression of lyrical phrases? Is it just another part of the epidemic dumbing down of society that audiences can no longer focus on songs without plot? For art’s sake, I surely hope not.

A suggestion to those constructing musicals from existing hit songs: the music has already proven that it can hold its own; not to mention the scores of predecessors in the musical revue category that have succeeded without the inclusion of plot. For example, Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World, Maltby and Shire’s Closer than Ever, or perhaps you remember a little show called Hair?

This is not to say that the Mamma Mia is not at most times entertaining, this is not even to say that it is not gratifying in any way for ABBA superfans, however, with ABBA’s reputation for indulgent, live spectacle and knack for narrative composition, all the hard work is already done. That said, the production may be trying a bit too hard.

The storyline of Mamma Mia is thoroughly punctured with nonsense and the majority of the characters are mediocre at best, a plot for plot’s sake if you will. To what gain, were these ideas even proposed? Instead of channeling their full efforts into presenting a high-energy theatrical translation of ABBA’s disco-magic auteur, the creative team chose to perforate the excitement with arbitrarily placed scenes functioning as banal transitions.

When you tie all of those scenes together, the plot turns out something like this. On a small island off the coast of Greece, a young girl, Sophie Sheridan (Liana Hunt), who is in the midst of planning her wedding, longs to have her father giver her away at her wedding. Her only problem is that her mother, Donna Sheridan (Michelle Dawson), says she does not know the truth behind her paternity and does not care to know, since she has done well raising Sophie on her own. But then Sophie stumbles upon her mother’s diary from the year she was born and narrows her potential fathers down to three men. On a whim, Sophie invites all three men to her wedding marking that the invitations are from her mother (unbeknownst to her mother or her fiancé, Sky (David Raimo)). As the three men arrive, confusion ensues and Sophie and her mother struggle to discover who they are and what they really want for their future.

Generic is the first word that comes to mind for this plot, which is in direct contrast with the wild and memorable style of ABBA’s canon of powerhouse hits. However, parts of the story were saved by a few shining members of the cast. For shame that she was not cast in a larger role, Kittra Wynn Coomer as Donna’s best friend Rosie will have your eyes watering with laughter. Her articulate face and gestures are precise and intelligent, her comedic timing, perfectly paced. Coomer delivers with optimum energy and connection to every subtle choice as well as a powerful set of lungs to boot in Take a Chance on Me. Another memorable character was Donna’s other best friend Tanya (Rachel Tyler) who knocks the island boys off their feet in Does Your Mother Know.

Overall, if I could have used the cut and paste functions for this production, I would have kept the musical numbers with their witty choreography and neon rhinestoned costumes and ditched the story. Thank you for bringing the music of ABBA to the Broadway stage, but the fluff could go. 

The music of Mamma Mia was composed by Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, book by Catherine Johnson. The national tour is being produced by Judy Craymer and Richard East with direction by Phyllida Lloyd, musical supervision by Martin Koch. Mamma Mia is being presented at the Orpheum Theater by the Hennepin Theater Trust March 9-14. Tickets are available at the State Theater Box Office or on the Hennepin Theater Trust website


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