Mamma Mia! and its two dozen of ABBA’s Greatest Hits are back at the Segerstrom Center For The Arts for the first time in three years, and though this is the international smash’s first non-Equity tour, this latest Mamma Mia! comes across Grade-A professional all the way.
At nearly 5200 performances on Broadway (and counting), Mamma Mia! not only ranks as one of the Great White Way’s biggest hits ever, it remains the world’s most popular “juke box musical,” that is to say one which takes a bunch of hit tunes and finds ways 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. Still, you’d have to be a grouch to 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.
Emerson College grad Chelsea Williams is Sophie, who informs her two best friends (Antoinette Comer and Emily Price) 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 (Chris Stevens). There’s American Sam (Jeff Drushal), Brit Harry (Mark A. Harmon), and Aussie Bill (Michael Colavolpe), each of whom dilly-dallied with young Donna over the course of a month or so. Meanwhile, 40ish Donna (Georgia Kate Haege) has her own invitees arriving—plus-sized Rosie (Carly Sakolove) and nipped-and-tucked Tanya (Gabrielle Mirabella), 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 the perfect jukebox musical, 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 2013-2014 tour cast is a terrific one, headed by native Aussie Haege’s dynamic (and believably American) Donna and a pair of scene-stealing turns by Mirabella and Sakolove. Stevens makes for an appealing young romantic lead, and Colavolpe, Drushal, and Harmon are all three standouts as Donna’s handsome suitors. Sophie’s gal pals Comer and Price are both charmers as are their male counterparts Kyle Dupree as Eddie and Christopher Hlinka as Pepper, the latter making a polished Mamma Mia! debut only days after being cast in the role.
Completing the all-around terrific cast are Anthony Alfaro, Francesca Arostegui, Ken Arpino, Grace Leszynski, Rebecca Mason-Wygal, Royce James McIntosh (Father Alexandrios), Tyler McKenzie, Alex Mendoza, Brynn Smith, Joshua LaMonte Switzer, Bonne Tomlinson, Jennifer Wingerter, Vince Wingerter, and Lauren Wright—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.)
Swings Meghan Glogower, Andrew J. Koslow, Danny Lopez, and Carly Wielstein, who doubles as dance captain, are poised to step in at any performance as needed.
Original Mamma Mia! director Phillida Lloyd continues to receive directorial credit for this latest Mamma Mia! tour; Martha Banta remains resident director as she was in the show’s previous stop at the Segerstrom.
Music director Kevin Casey on keyboard 1 conducts the tour’s sensational six-piece band—associate music director Enrico De Trizio on keyboard 2, David Malachowski on guitar 1, Paul Heaney on guitar 2, Marcel Hamel on bass, and Oskar Häggdahl on drums—precisely the same number of instruments as in the 2011 Equity tour.
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—and appear to this reviewer’s eyes no different from those previously seen on tour.
Thompson’s excellent costumes range from ‘70s (and more specifically ‘70s ABBA) nostalgia to ‘90s Greek Isle-wear. Sound designers Andrew Bruce and Bobby Aitken do a first-rate job of mixing synthesizers and voices. Martin Koch is musical supervisor as well as providing additional material and arrangements.
PD Seltzer is company manager. Christopher Flores is stage manager. Alan D. Knight is assistant stage manager.
As Mamma Mia! continues its now 13-year-long Broadway run, there’s no sign of the ABBA musical slowing down any time soon as production after production opens in country after country. If this doesn’t make Mamma Mia!’s one-week-only arrival in Costa Mesa worth singing about, then I don’t know what does.
Segerstrom Center For The Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Through April 13. Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday at 7:30. Saturday at 2:00 and 7:30. Sunday at 1:00 and 6:30. Reservations: 714 556-2787
April 8, 2014
Photos: Kevin Thomas Garcia