By Kyle Osborne
It’s broader than the side of a barn and more over-the-top than a Liberace and Dolly Parton pairing in Vegas. The choreography is clumsy and the actors stiffly recite their lines like Soap Opera characters in a high school play. It’s shamelessly corny and includes pratfalls and enough spandex to clothe 1975-era LaBelle, and all the ghosts of Studio 54.
It’s also infectiously fun, crowd-pleasing and on this night, it literally had audience members dancing in the aisle. If you can’t dance and if you can’t jive to the cheerful sounds of “Dancing Queen,” then you are Scrooge incarnate. Go wait in the lobby, we’re having fun in here.
Mamma Mia! Is the latest mega-hit musical to take over The National Theatre for this season’s Broadway At The National series, and it’s been welcomed with the kind of fan fervor that is reminiscent of The Rocky Horror Show, which is to say an almost cult-like devotion to every song, every line and small detail. You don’t just see it once.
The musical is built around the catchy, chart-topping songs by 70’s Super Group ABBA. Nearly two dozen songs are woven into a story about a bride-to-be who lives on a Greek island with her Mom, Donna Sheridan (Georgia Kate Haege). Mom has had an illustrious past, it seems. According to a diary that daughter Sophie Sheridan (Chelsea Williams) has perused, any one of three different men could be Sophie’s biological father. She invites all three to her wedding, Sam, Bill and Harry, and the farcical twists begin to turn. Meanwhile, Mom’s two BFF’s from her past have also come to the island for the nuptials—sparking a “girl group” reunion of sorts. Only the “girls” are “Cougars” by this time.
So, who is the “real” father? Which man will walk his daughter down the aisle? Who cares? The storyline is unabashedly a frame upon which to hang some delightful songs, each well sung (the cast seem to be much stronger singers than actors) and each eliciting smiles from the audience. A full list of the ABBA songs follows this review.
A reviewer spots two enthusiastic “chair dancers” a couple of rows ahead, and is instantly reminded of the first TV commercials that aired for Mamma Mia! more than a decade ago. When the play debuted on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theatre, barely a month had passed since the events of 9-11. After spending what seemed like an eternity not laughing, not having fun—audiences were ready for and needed a release. What one remembers about those commercials, interestingly, was that they didn’t show much of the play, rather, they showed footage of the audience, gleefully singing along and clapping and dancing. How many theatre shows afford that kind physical participation? The commercials seemed to be saying, “Forget about the plot, forget about theatre etiquette, come out and wave your arms and sing the songs you grew up with.”
Just five rows from the stage, 53 year old Brenda Tappan and 62 year old Cindy Jansen, can barely contain themselves. They’re seeing the play for the third time, and they’re instantly being transformed into teenagers. “Yes, absolutely we grew up with these songs and we love them,” says Brenda with a grin, “But just look around—look at how many young people are here and loving the songs, too.” And the youthful presence isn’t just in the audience. Cindy notes that, “this cast is really young and the energy is great.” Both women agreed that this particular production flowed smoothly from song to song. “You know how, often times, an actor will pause, then wait for the music, and then start singing? In this show they’re just flowing into the songs without that kind of pause,” Brenda observes. Believe what these women say–they’ve not only seen the play, they dressed in full costume to see the movie when it came out.
The reviewer finds the first act a bit clunky, but thinks the second act is irresistible, especially with so much enthusiasm being directed from the audience to the stage. But the real reason to see the show, the part that they filmed for the commercials, is the three song sing-along that actually happens after the curtain call.
It turns out that Brenda and Cindy have a couple of good sports in tow with them this evening. Brenda’s husband, Rick, and Cindy’s partner Dave, find themselves in the aisle—giving their girls a twirl, letting their sense of embarrassment go (as Brenda said, “We’re too old to give a sh*t”) and giving the ladies a story-book ending to a great evening by basking in the glow of their very own “Dancing Queens.”
Mamma Mia! Continues at The National Theatre through March 9th. Tickets and more information are available at: http://thenationaldc.org/
The songs performed, in alphabetical order are:
Does Your Mother Know
Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!
I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do
I Have A Dream
Knowing Me, Knowing You
Lay All Your Love On Me
Money, Money, Money
One Of Us
Our Last Summer
Slipping Through My Fingers
Take A Chance On Me
Thank You For The Music
The Name Of The Game
The Winner Takes It All