Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The idea behind Mamma Mia! seemed absurd when its creators hatched it, even having to persuade the Swedish pop group ABBA that their songs had the potential to work as theater songs. ABBA had been international pop music royalty from 1972 to 1982, with their hook-driven, danceable tunes and outlandishly garish stage costumes that seemed right at home in the 1970s. But their star had waned when an English producer sold them on the idea, hired playwright Catherine Johnson to write a book that linked the group's playlist, and brought Phyllida Lloyd on board to direct. The show opened in London in 1999, and the rest is "Money, Money, Money" history.
What is most surprising upon first viewing is that the songs really do work as narrative devices, almost all of them telling some kind of miniature story, or describing a specific personality. Johnson's book does a super job of finding common ground to draw those stories together, and insert those personalities. Okay, that doesn't negate the fact that the book is utter foolishness, the characters totally lacking in logic. Mamma Mia! is a fairy tale with the most improbable of happy endings. But on stage, and with the unbridled joy generated by ABBA's propulsive sounds, it all works.
For anyone besides me who has never before seen Mamma Mia!, it is the story of Sophie Sheridan's search for her father on the eve of her wedding. The 20-year-old was raised by her fiercely independent mother Donna, who told Sophie she didn't know who the father was, and tried her best to make sure it never mattered. But Sophie discovered in her mother's twenty-year-old diary accounts of intimate dates with three different men at just the right time to ensure that one of them must be her father. Sophie is certain that she would know her father if she saw him. Behind her mother's back she sent all three men invitations (with Donna's name on top) to her wedding, not telling them why they are being summoned. Harry, Sam and Bill accept, each thinking that, after twenty years, Donna is reaching out to reconnect. Their arrival throws Donna into a state of confusion and panic. Oh, the mistaken assumptions, foolishly kept secrets, and missed opportunities that ensue! Along for the ride are Donna's two BFFs from back in the 1970s, when the three ladies were a singing group, Donna and the Dynamos, with costumes remarkably similar to those worn by ABBA in their heyday. Since then, Rosie has trod a feminist path, editing "The Whole Woman's Journal" and disavowing a need for men, while Tanya has acquired three ex-husbands and even more plastic surgeries. What could be merrier?
The premise certainly could have a major "ick" factor, and strain credibility from start to finish. To whitewash that possibility away, Johnson sets the tale on a sun-drenched Greek island, where Donna landed with the infant Sophie, working her way up to become owner of a romantic taverna and hotel perched upon the sea. Such a setting allows for drinks at any time of day and a vacation frame of mind where dalliances seem unavoidable, and it gives the well-chiseled male ensemble reason to spend plenty of time with their shirts off. Sophie's boyishly handsome fiancé Sky seems to have no family and, except for Father Alexandrios, standing ready to perform the wedding ceremony, no one appears to be Greek. Everyone is out of their reality zone in a setting where fairy tales really can come true. Crazy, sure, but again, all I can say is, it works.
Part of the secret sauce that put Mamma Mia! in the super-smash circle is Phyllida Lloyd's light touch as director, which begs we not take the story too seriously, though draws out enough real feeling from her cast to make us hope for a happy ending. Also upping the score is Anthony Van Laast's fantastically energetic choreography, including a hugely crowd pleasing dance number by Sky's buddies in wet suits (with front zippers pulled down to the naval, thank you) and flippers. The dances so well match the music, you'd think Van Laast had been in the room when Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus created the ABBA songbook.
There have been busloads of Donnas, Rosies, Tanyas, Sophies, prospective fathers, and ensemble members, over Mamma Mia!'s thousands of performances. The cast at the Orpheum are terrific, bringing strong voices, movement, and comic chops as called for. Betsy Padamonsky makes a great Donna Sheridan, believable in her resolve to be strong and independent, tender in her devotion to Sophie, and possessed with great pipes to deliver her share of the ABBA songs. Sarah Smith and Cashelle Butler as her pals Rosie and Tanya, respectively, hold up their end as well, especially delivering comic good in the numbers that spotlight their talents. Lizzie Markson is fine as Sophie Sheridan, with a lovely voice and the stubborn energy you would expect of Donna's daughter. As the three potential dads, Shai Yammanee as Sam (the sensitive one), Marc Cornes as Bill (the proper one with a head-banger past), and Andrew Tebo (the nervously resolved to be single one), all fare well, and have a chemistry together that make them seem more like old chums than competitors for Donna Sheridan's favor. The ensemble has enough energy to power an archipelago of Greek Islands.
Kevin Casey conducts an orchestra that does full justice to the sounds of ABBA. Production designer Mark Thompson's white stucco walls are easily rearranged to create indoor and outdoor settings, with sun streaked sky across the back, and nighttime scenes presided over by a full moon, in al its romantic glory. Thompson is also responsible for the costumes, a mix of comfortable looking attire for a Greek island vacation, Sophie's simply elegant wedding gown, and over-the-top spandex costumes for Donna and the Dynamos that would fit right in on the pages of Dr. Seuss. The lighting and sound design are first class, keeping the production looking and sounding like a winner.
So, now I have seen Mamma Mia!, and I'm glad I did. Am I wiser, or better for spending a couple of hours with this dopey dream of a show? Probably not. But I can't conceal a big grin when I recall the jokes, the amazing dances, the brilliant designs, and especially the sounds of ABBA exploding off the stage at the Orpheum. Hey, this is the farewell tour! Miss it at your own risk.
Mamma Mia! runs through February 12, 2017, at the Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis. Tickets: $39.00 - $144.00. For ticket information call 612-373-5661 or go to hennepintheatretrust.org. For more information on the tour, visit mammamiaontour.com.
Music and Lyrics: Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, and some songs with Stig Anderson; Book: Catherine Johnson; Director: Phyllida Lloyd; Production Design: Mark Thompson; Lighting Design: Howard Harrison; Sound Design: Andrew Bruce and Bobby Aitken; Choreography: Anthony Van Laast; Musical Supervisor, Additional Material and Arrangements: Martin Koch; Resident Director: Martha Banta; Conductor: Kevin Casey; Casting: Joy Dewing, Casting; Production Stage Manager: Geneva Mattoon; Associate Stage Manager: Alexander Pierce
Cast: Niki Badua (Lisa), Cashelle Butler (Tanya), Marc Cornes (Bill Austin), Max Ehrlich (Eddie), Joshua Taylor Hamilton (Father Alexandrios), Chloe Kounadis (Ali), Lizzie Markson (Sophie Sheridan), Austin Michael (Pepper), Betsy Padamonsky (Donna Sheridan), Dustin Harris Smith (Sky), Sarah Smith (Rosie), Andrew Tebo (Harry Bright), Shai Yammanee (Sam Carmichael). Ensemble: Joshua Taylor Hamilton, Matthew Janisse, Marcus John, Cori Cable Kidder, Gabriella Marchion, Luke Monday, Catherine Nickerson, Alicia Osborn, Carlina Parker, Yael Reich, Alex Sheets, Julia Cassandra Smith, Ian Taylor, Brian Whitehill.