Mamma Mia: It's Hard Not to Sing Along at This Silly but Fun Show

The set up:

Confession. I am the only person on the face of the earth who has not seen Mamma Mia. OK, that may be a wee bit of an exaggeration, but it's not far off. At least not in the theater world. The jukebox musical featuring the music of the Swedish band ABBA (music and lyrics by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus and book by Catherine Johnson) has played in more than 40 countries on all six continents, selling strongly everywhere it goes. Following its successful debut in London's West End, the show opened on Broadway in 2001 and after almost 14 years it will finally shutter for good this fall, some 5,765 performances later.

So why haven't I seen it? It's not as though the plot is any more or less ridiculous than many other musicals out there. Certainly no more ridiculous than the 1968 film, Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell, starring Gina Lollobrigida that the Mamma Mia story was lifted from. Living on a Greek Island are Sophie and her mom Donna. Sophie is about to get married but has no idea who her father is. Mom's not telling. So Sophie reads her mother's diary and whittles her paternity down to three possibilities. Secretly she invites the men to the wedding where all the fun begins when they realize why they've been summoned.

Sure it's a silly conceit, but that wasn't what was keeping me away. Certainly the music isn't the problem. It's not like I'm above shaking my tail feathers to an ABBA song now and then. I would venture that many of us have a secret or not so secret ABBA guilty pleasure lurking in us.

Truth is, I envisioned the whole thing as one big disco-fuelled, elation-filled, retro loving, campfire singalong and for one reason or another it made me itchy. But, enough of that nonsense. Time to grow up, be a big girl (a dancing queen perhaps?) and see what all the fuss is about. Better late than never - that's the name of my game!

The execution:

OK, so I was partly right. The enthusiastic and cynical-free fandom this show elicits is evident in the lobby even before the show begins. Not that everyone is dressed in flare-legged sparkly jumpsuits with choker necklaces and platform shoes, but let's just say there are more of these outfits than you'd see on any average day. But here's the really surprising thing, even if I wouldn't be caught dead as a costumed audience member, I do get where their sense of sartorially expressed joy with this show comes from. Yes, I'll say it - Mamma Mia is a fun show. An insipid, thinly drawn, with nothing of substance to say show, but fun nonetheless.

This is mainly thanks to the musical numbers which consist of 24 of ABBA's ridiculously catchy, perfectly crafted, toe tappingly angsty, just slightly more sophisticated than bubble gum pop songs. Unlike most jukebox musicals that use popular songs to illustrate a bands/singers life story (Jersey Boys) or squish songs painfully and inanely into a narrative (Rock of Ages), Mamma Mia actually does a fairly nice job of making ABBA's tunes seem like they fit right in. Well most of the time. Knowing You Knowing Me, a lugubrious song relaying a woman's letting go of her relationship awkwardly becomes one potential father explaining his divorce to Sophie. Take a Chance on Me, a song pleading for love not quite fittingly becomes a mating dance turned grope fest in a wonderfully funny scene between Donna's friend Rosie and another potential father.

Truth is, even if one or two numbers feel a little try-hard in the narrative department, just wait a minute or so and another one will come along that may work a little better. This is a show that pumps out the familiar songs like a top 40 countdown and one of the things you can't help but note ABBA's embarrassment of riches when it comes to hit songs. Just when you think there can't possibly be any more after an Act 1 featuring Money Money Money, Mamma Mia, Dancing Queen and The Name of the Game, Act 2 hits you with S.O.S, Does Your Mother Know and Winner Takes it All. Had Andersson, Ulvaeus and Johnson decided to add on an Act 3 I'm sure they could have found some way to incorporate Waterloo and Fernando, but mercifully the team knew when to quit when they were ahead.

Merciful as well is the fact that the folks at the Hobby Center seem to have finally figured out how to work the sound mix. Unlike so many other musicals set in this theater that amp up the music and the mikes to the point of incoherence, we were treated with a performance where lyrics were clear as day and our eardrums weren't ringing painfully in revolt. Good thing too because I have no doubt that there might have been a revolt if the audience couldn't revel in lyrics like, "Chiquitita, tell me what's wrong You're enchained by your own sorrow. In your eyes there is no hope for tomorrow." You just can't make this stuff up.

But chart-topping tunes only work if you have a cast that can do them justice, and this production has a boat-load of them. Or really I should say bust-load as it's the gals that do the heavy lifting and steal the show. As Rosie, Sarah Smith may be a plain Jane character, but her charisma on stage comes through with a terrifically emotive singing style and something just as important in a musical, acting ability. Smith doesn't just belt out perfect pop tunes, this is a performer that can take a role as flimsy as onion paper and make us like and root for her. Matching her on both fronts is Georgia Kate Haege as Donna. Playing the feminist, doesn't need a man, free spirit, former lounge singer, Haege still manages to find a soft side to Donna and brings the house down with her Winner Takes it All number bemoaning the guy that got away.

The supporting ladies are just as grand. Sarah Smith as Donna's frumpy ex backup singer in town for the wedding may not be sporting a crop top and dancing like a video gal extra on stage, but this is a performer that knows how to use her body to milk the music and get genuine laughs from the audience. At the other extreme is Tanya, Donna's other ex-backup dancer, played by Bailey Purvis. All sex all the time, Purvis struts around on stage in slit up to there dresses but eschews the cliché for humor that has us laughing with and at her. Both Purvis and Smith bring sass and much needed comic relief from this overly earnest, love will conquer all story.

The men are less successful. As the potential fathers, Harry, Bill and Sam, Todd MacIntyre, Michael Colavolpe and Jeff Drushal are serviceable. MacIntyre stands out for having the most notable voice, but truly none of these gents are overly memorable. The same can be said for the weak-voiced Eric Presnall as Sky, Sophie's fiancé. But then really, the men in this musical are place holders at best in a show that wondrously features and draws attention predominantly to the female characters. Say what you want about the frivolity of Mamma Mia, but this fact alone makes me love the show more than a little.

As for the rest of the cast, Anthony Van Laast's choreography keep a stable of nubile men and women gallivanting about the stage to often terrifically comedic effect. Laast's big numbers are a whirlwind of energy with enough soul injected to keep your feet happily tapping. Martin Koch's musical arrangement makes sure that no number is far off from the original ABBA radio played tune which was much appreciated by the two fellows in front on me singing away and gesturing to every song. Mark Thomspon's simple design of a rotating block of adobe houses back lit by a blue Grecian sky stays nicely out of the way of the energy on stage. All of this falls under Phyllia Lloyd's direction which deserves credit for moving things along at such a clippy pace we almost don't realize there is nothing being relayed here but our gleeful anticipation of the next hit song to cue up.

The verdict: Well, having now finally seen Mamma Mia, I can say that it's changed my mind. No I won't be the first in line the next time it blows into town. But even though I walked out of the show with nothing other than a head full of ear worms and some choreographic eye candy, I have to admit that I'm glad I took a chance on the production.

Sometimes it's perfectly okay just to be in the mood for a dance.

Mamma Mia continues through April 19 at Hobby Center for the Performing Arts 800 Bagby St. Purchase tickets online at or call 800‑952‑6560. $30 to $100.

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Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman