Is there any show in the world that can rival the success of Mamma Mia!? Since its 1999 World Premiere in London’s West End, there have been at least 30 “sit-down” productions across the globe. Sydney, Las Vegas, Madrid, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Mexico City, Paris, and Oslo are just a handful of the cities where Mamma Mia has “sat down” and stayed for months or even years. Then there are the tours, beginning with the First U.S. tour that played the Ahmanson back in 2002, stretching up to the musical’s four current tours—North American, European, Japanese, and Korean. As for Mamma Mia!’s Broadway run, just a couple weeks ago it hit 4000 performances and counting. All this is to say that a) you shouldn’t expect your local CLO to mount its own production in the foreseeable future and b) if you want to see Mamma Mia! live on stage, you’d better head on down to Costa Mesa where the North American tour is making an all-too-brief one-week stop.

Mamma Mia! may well be the quintessential “juke box musical,” that is to say one which takes a bunch of hit tunes and finds a way to string them together as if they had been written for the musical and not the other way around. Using the 1968 Gina Lollobrigida comedy Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell as inspiration, book writer Catherine Johnson adroitly squeezes almost two dozen ABBA hits into the tale of a young woman who invites the three men who might be her father to her upcoming wedding, hoping to find out which of her mother’s boyfriends two decades ago planted the seed which grew into twenty-year-old Sophie Sheridan. Needless to say, the arrival of the trio at the Greek taverna run by Mamma Donna causes a commotion, not just in the village, but in the innkeeper’s heart as well.

Jukebox musicals have acquired somewhat of a bad rep in the years since Mamma Mia! first greeted the world, with critics complaining of wispy plots and less than artistic intentions, to which this reviewer replies, “Who the bleep cares?” I’ve seen Mamma Mia on stage four times now (in 2002, 2004, 2006, and 2011) and have enjoyed it each time. Only a grouch would pick nits with a show that features one ABBA hit after another, sparkling performances, bouncy choreography, and a three-hit encore that gets the audience up singing and dancing in their seats.

Los Angeles’s Hamilton High School Academy Of Music grad Chloe Tucker is Sophie, who informs her two best friends (Stephanie Barnum and Elena Marisa Flores) that according to her mother’s twenty-one-year-old diary entries, there were three different men who made her Mamma swoon—to the words and music of “Honey, Honey.” (“He’s a love machine. Oh, he makes me dizzy.”) Even bigger news is that all three are about to arrive at the tavern for Sophie’s wedding to Sky (Happy Mahaney). There’s American Sam (Tony Clements), Brit Harry (Paul Deboy), and Aussie Bill (Brian Ray Norris), each of whom dilly-dallied with young Donna over the course of a month or so. Meanwhile, 40ish Donna (Kaye Tuckerman) has her own invitees arriving—plus-sized Rosie (Mary Callanan) and nipped-and-tucked Tanya (Alison Ewing), her longtime best friends and former Donna And The Dynamos groupmates. When Donna comes face to face with the three men who might have fathered Sophie, memories come rushing back to the strains of the title tune (“Mamma mia, here I go again. My, my, how can I resist you?”)

Music and lyrics are by ABBA males Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, and if there’s anything that gets in the way of Mamma Mia!’s being as perfect a jukebox musical as I find my personal favorite All Shook Up to be, it’s those slightly stilted ABBA lyrics. After all, what American gal is going to call her best girlfriend Chiquitita, and what native speaker of English will come up with turns of phrases like “Super Trouper beams are gonna blind me, but I won’t feel blue” or “Got a feeling, you give me no choice, but it means a lot to me. So I wanna know what’s the name of the game?” Hardly what you’d get from Stephen Sondheim, Oscar Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Fred Ebb, or even Tim Rice.

Still, this is minor kvetching compared to the infectious ABBA hooks provided by the composing duo and the memories their songs bring back of whatever age you were when you first discovered the Scandinavian Super Troupers.

Mamma Mia!’s current North American Tour cast is a solid one, headed by Tuckerman’s feisty Donna and a pair of scene-stealing turns by Callanan and Ewing. Mahaney makes for a dashing leading man, and suitors Clements, Deboy, and Norris each have their standout moments. Sophie’s gal pals Barnum and Flores are charmers as is triple-threat UCLA grad James Michael Lambert as Eddie, one of Donna’s taverna houseboys. Last but not least are L.A. native Tucker’s winning performance as Sophie, combining sincerity, vulnerability, and powerhouse pipes, and Los Angeles/West End favorite Ethan Le Phong as spunky houseboy Pepper, whose sexy charm and killer dance moves earn deserved cheers.

Completing the all-around terrific cast at the performance reviewed here are Jeff Applegate (Father Alexandros), Julius Chase, Eileen Faxas, Thomasina E. Gross, Carole Denise Jones, Alison Luff, Mario Matthews, Benjamin J. McHugh, Christopher Hudson Myers, Merrill Peiffer, dance captain Kylie Rae, Chirsopher Sergeeff, Jennifer Swiderski, and Travis Taber—all of whom execute Anthony Van Laast’s energetic, athletic choreography with flair in addition to providing considerable vocal backup both onstage and off. (One of Mamma Mia!’s cleverer conceits is having its ensemble serve as a veritable Greek chorus, popping up again and again in unexpected places.)

Phillida Lloyd gets directorial credit, but it’s resident director Martha Banta who recreates the original magic on Broadway and on tour. Music director Bill Congdon on keyboard 1 conducts the tour’s sensational six-piece band—associate music director Lauren McGee on keyboard 2, Andrew Zinsmeister on guitar 1, Darren Lucas on guitar 2, Julia Adamy on electric bass, and Joshua Priest on drums.

Not having seen Mamma Mia! on Broadway, I can’t say if production designer Mark Thompson’s touring sets match those at New York’s Winter Garden Theatre. Those which travel the country are rather more simple than what one might expect from a big-stage Broadway smash (basically two revolving set pieces which serve as the interior and exterior of the taverna), though they do evoke the white-on-blue-sky/sea image we have of the Greek isles. Thompson’s excellent costumes range from ‘70s (and more specifically ‘70s ABBA) nostalgia to ‘90s Greek Isle-wear. There were some mike glitches with Andrew Bruce and Bobby Aitken’s sound design on opening night, but otherwise they do a first-rate job of mixing synthesizers and voices. Martin Koch is musical supervisor as well as providing additional material and arrangements.

As Mamma Mia! heads into its second decade on Broadway this October, there’s no sign of it slowing down any time soon as production after production opens in country after country. (2010 marked the beginning of Mamma Mia! sit-downs in Sydney, Serbia, Switzerland, South Africa, Melbourne, Paris, and São Paulo, if not more.) If this doesn’t make Mamma Mia!’s one-week-only arrival in Costa Mesa news on an international scale, then I don’t know what does.

Segerstrom Center For The Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
–Steven Stanley
June 21, 2011
Photos: Joan Marcus

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